TIME Environment

How Costa Rica Went 75 Days Using Only Clean Electricity

Costa Rica Hydropower
Getty Images A man overlooks a hydropower facility in Costa Rica.

While governments from countries around the world this week have outlined how they plan to curb their carbon emissions, Costa Rica may seem like it’s showing off. The Central American country’s state utility company announced last week that it went the first 75 days of 2015 without using fossil fuels like coal or oil for electricity. The country expects to rely on renewable energy for more than 95% of the total electricity consumed this year.

It’s good news, but as is often the case with climate policy, the devil is in the details. A number of factors make the accomplishment less significant than it appears at first glance. Fossil fuels have been used to produce only a tiny fraction of Costa Rican electricity for decades—today, renewable energy accounts more than 85% of the total electricity produced—and popular support for climate change measures is strong. More importantly, trumpeting the elimination of fossil fuels for electricity elides the tougher reality that Costa Rica—like nearly every other country in the world—relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels for transportation.

“We don’t want this be a 75-day story, we want this to be a 365-day story,” said Monica Araya, executive director of Nivela, a Costa Rica-based climate change think tank. “We need to have a conversation about how to go beyond hydro, and not just about clean electricity, but clean energy.”

Read More: White House Outlines Plans to Cut Carbon Emissions by up to 28%

F0r Costa Rica, the road to eliminating fossil fuels in electricity has been decades long. Even before climate change became a global concern, Costa Rica has long been able to rely on clean energy sources for nearly all of its electricity, thanks to a tropical location well suited for carbon-free hydropower. In fact, the majority of Costa Rica’s electricity has been generated by hydropower in every year since 1989, according to data provided by Nivela.

Energy experts praised the use of renewable resources, but they also warned that hydropower may not be reliable in the future as climate patterns change. Today, other renewable energy sources in Costa Rica—particularly, geothermal and wind power—provide a significant proportion of energy, but hydropower still reigns supreme. Costa Rica needs to prepare for a climate that may not receive as much rain—which would dilute hydropower—by adding solar and wind power capacity.

Much more needs to be done, even beyond the utility sector. “It’s important to be precise—you’re only talking about electricity,” said Carolina Herrera Jáuregui, Latin America Advocate at the National Resources Defense Council. “The majority of the energy of used is through the transportation sector.”

Unlike many of its regional counterparts, nearly 75% of the Costa Rican economy is based on service businesses that rely much more on energy for transportation than for electricity. And transporting people and goods around Costa Rica—especially for the booming tourism industry—generally means traveling in a car or another personal vehicle, which emits more carbon than other means like trains, which are largely absent in the country.

Still, Costa Ricans show widespread support for efforts to curb climate change. Around 80% of the population has heard about climate change and essentially all of those who have heard of climate change believe in it, according to a United Nations report. A wide majority also supports new renewable energy projects, including 87% who support wind power plants and 77% who support geothermal plants. Less than a quarter support the further use of oil.

Popular understanding of climate change may not be surprising in a country known for designating more than a quarter of its area as national park land and for eliminating its army and subsequently investing heavily in education. “These things put us on a pathway that was friendlier to people and eventually friendlier to our natural capital,” said Araya.

In the decades-long battle against climate change, the significance of Costa Rica’s achievement will likely rest in the example they set for other countries as this December’s climate change conference in Paris approaches rapidly. “The movement that you see in Latin America is a very positive thing,” said Araya. “It’s easier in the U.S. and elsewhere to move if you see others moving.”

TIME climate change

White House Outlines Plans to Cut Carbon Emissions By Up to 28%

Coal plant
Getty Images

The plan is the first step toward achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050

The White House reaffirmed a commitment to cut carbon emissions by up to 28% by 2025 in a Tuesday submission to the United Nations that promises new regulations on power plants, new fuel economy standards for some vehicles and rules to address methane emissions.

The plan, the first step toward achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, calls for a dramatic increase in the rate at which the U.S. reduces carbon pollution, from 1.2% per year between 2005 and 2020 to between 2.3% and 2.8% between 2020 and 2025.

“This submission is ambitious and achievable,” said Brian Deese, a senior advisor to the President on climate change, on a conference call. “We know this is good for our economy, good for our health and good for our future.”

The plan, submitted to meet an informal United Nations target date, reaffirms a commitment made by the U.S. in November to cut its carbon emissions by more than a quarter by 2025. At the time, the U.S. and China—the world’s two largest emitters of carbon—made a bilateral commitment to take the lead on the issue, with China agreeing to stop growth in its carbon emissions by 2030.

The commitments of the U.S. and China, along with those of other countries that have submitted plans to the UN, are intended to make a statement that will encourage other countries ahead of a U.N. conference in December intended to produce a binding international agreement on climate change. Leadership aside, the plans already submitted promise to make a dramatic impact on global carbon emissions. Together the U.S., China, the European Union and Mexico, all of which have submitted plans, represent 58% of the world’s carbon emissions.

The U.S. plan, which relies on actions that don’t need Congressional approval, will likely face pushback from Republicans who have already sought to undermine the effort. U.S. officials said Tuesday that proposals are designed to remain in place for years beyond the Obama administration.

“The undoing of the kind of regulation that we’re putting in place is something that’s very tough to do,” said Todd Stern, special envoy for climate change at the State Department, on a conference call.

The plan drew immediate praise in environmental circles. Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh in a statement that she believes the plan can be “met” and “even exceeded.”

“This important commitment sends a powerful message to the world: Together we can slash dangerous carbon pollution and combat climate change,” she said.

TIME climate change

Antarctica May Have Just Set a Record for Its Hottest Day Ever

Antarctica
Getty Images Emperor penguins on an ice edge in Antarctica.

The continent appears to have hit 63.5 F for the first time thanks to global warming

You may want to consider balmy Antarctica for your next Spring Break. Weather bloggers at Weather Underground report that the continent likely hit a record-breaking high of 63.5 F (17.5 C) on Tuesday.

Antarctica has been heating up in recent years, thanks to global warming. The region’s temperature has risen an average of about 5 F (2.8 C) in the last half century, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Studies have also documented melting ice along Antarctica’s coasts.

Tuesday’s record is all the more impressive considering that it was set just one day after Antarctica had reached a new high of 63.3 F (17.4 C) on Monday. Prior to those two record-setting days, the hottest the continent had ever gotten was 62.8 F (17.1 C) on April 24, 1961.

But the record is not yet official. The reading was logged on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which may not be considered part of the continent in weather record keeping. The World Meteorological Organization is expected to examine whether the area was indeed in Antarctica or whether it is technically located in Argentina.

Read Next: The Antarctic’s Floating Ice Shelves Are Melting At an Alarming Rate

[Weather Underground]

TIME climate change

People Across the Globe Switch Off Their Lights for Earth Hour

AUSTRALIA-ENVIRONMENT-ENERGY-EARTH HOUR
Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images Fireworks fade as lights go out on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House to signal the start of the Earth Hour environmental campaign, among the first landmarks around the world to dim their lights for the event on March 28, 2015.

From Australia to Austin, global citizens send a message about climate change

Seven thousand cities in 162 countries across the globe are turning off their lights for Earth Hour this year. Each city will dim their skyline beginning at 8:30 p.m. local time on Saturday.

Earth Hour started in 2007 as a World Wildlife Fund event in Australia and has grown to become a global message that citizens across the world must work together to fight climate change. Some of the world’s best-known landmarks will go dark this year, including the the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the United Nations building in New York City and the Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.

This year’s earth hour takes on extra significance ahead of the UN meeting on climate change in Paris scheduled for December.

Read next: Antarctica May Have Just Set a Record for Its Hottest Day Ever

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 27

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Why did Saudi Arabia lead airstrikes on the rebels who’ve seized Yemen? The answer isn’t as clear as it seems.

By Frederic Wehrey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

2. Three black swimmers swept the 100-yard freestyle at the NCAA swim championships — and swept away a long-standing stereotype.

By Kavitha Davidson in Bloomberg View

3. Could a Facebook deal to host news content make news brands obsolete?

By Felix Salmon in Fusion

4. A new satellite study reveals the rapid breakdown of Antarctic ice. Low-lying nations should be worried.

By Robert McSweeney in the Carbon Brief

5. Here’s how reproductive health rights for women can help end poverty.

By Valerie Moyer in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

The Antarctic’s Floating Ice Shelves Are Melting At an Alarming Rate

AUSTRALIA-ANTARCTICA-ENVIROMENT
Australian Antarctic Division—AFP/Getty Images The Totten Glacier, pictured here, is the most rapidly thinning glacier in East Antarctica.

The rate is also accelerating over time

Some of Antarctica’s floating ice shelves are up to 18% thinner than they were two decades ago, according to a new study shedding light on climate change.

Science Daily reports that researchers at the UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography examined satellite data from the past two decades and discovered that ice shelves are thinning at precipitous rates, which are accelerating over time.

In 1994 to 2003, Antarctica’s total ice shelf volume – the ice shelf area multiplied by thickness – underwent minimal change. Then thinning began, with the last few years pointing to the highest rate of change.

“Eighteen percent over the course of eighteen years is really a substantial change,” researcher Fernando Paolo told Science Daily. “Overall, we show not only the total ice shelf volume is decreasing, but we see an acceleration in the last decade.”

The ice shelf shrinkage is indirectly linked to rising sea levels, and current volume reduction rates have scientists projecting that half the volume of ice shelves in western Antarctica may be lost in 200 years.

[Science Daily]

TIME Environment

Pollutants Created by Climate Change Are Making Airborne Allergens More Potent

Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, Jilin province of China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on Jan. 22, 2015, in Jilin, China

It could explain why more people are suffering from year to year

If you think your seasonal sneezing, wheezing and sniffling is getting worse, you aren’t simply imagining it.

Currently, some 50 million or so Americans suffer from nasal allergies, but the number is going up, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say a pair of pollutants linked to climate change could be to blame. That’s according to a report in Science Daily.

The two gases are nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, which appear to set off chemical changes in some airborne allergens, increasing their potency.

“Scientists have long suspected that air pollution and climate change are involved in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” said the institute’s Ulrich Pöschl. “Our research is just a starting point, but it does begin to suggest how chemical modifications in allergenic proteins occur and how they may affect allergenicity.”

Pöschl’s team found that ozone (a major component of smog) oxidizes an amino acid that sets off chemical reactions that ultimately alter an allergenic protein’s structure. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (found in car exhausts) appears to alter the separation and binding capabilities of certain allergens.

Researchers believe that together, the two gases make allergens more likely to trigger the body’s immune response, especially in wet, humid and smoggy conditions.

The team hopes to identify other allergenic proteins that are modified in the environment and examine how these affect the human immune system.

[Science Daily]

TIME climate change

Global Carbon Emissions Flatlined in 2014 Even as Economy Grew

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Hans-Peter Merten—Getty Images coal power plant at dusk

In an encouraging sign, levels of the leading greenhouse gas were unchanged in 2014

Global carbon emissions did not increase in 2014, marking the first time on record that carbon levels have not grown without a concurrent decline in global demand.

Carbon dioxide emissions last year remained at 32.3 billion metric tons, the same as a year earlier, even as the global economy grew by 3 percent, according to a news release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) published Friday. Since the IEA began tracking carbon dioxide emissions 40 years ago, the rise has been halted or reversed only three times: in the early 1980s amid the oil price shock, in 1992 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

“This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today,” Fatih Birol, the chief economist and next executive director of the IEA, said in a statement.

The IAE attributed part of the halt in emissions growth to China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, where the growing use of renewable sources like hydropower and solar energy have helped reduce the country’s reliance on coal. In a deal with the United States in November, China pledged to stop emission growth by 2030.

The news is an encouraging sign for the global effort to combat climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of this year, which aims to establish a global pact on emissions.

TIME climate change

Florida Reportedly Bans Environment Officials From Mentioning Climate Change

Climate Change Impacts South Florida Ecosystems
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Phillip Hughes, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walks through an area of buttonwood trees killed by a saltwater incursion in Big Pine Key, Florida. Hughes says over the past 50 years, as sea levels rise, the Florida Keys upland vegetation has been dying off and replaced by salt-tolerant vegetation

An investigative report claims that global warming and sustainability are also prohibited terms

Underscoring the divisiveness of climate change in American politics, government officials at Florida’s main environment agency have reportedly been asked to refrain from mentioning it.

Officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were given an unwritten order not to use the words climate change or global warming in any official communication or reports, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) claimed on Sunday.

“We were told not to use the terms climate change, global warming or sustainability,” Christopher Byrd, an attorney in DEP’s Office of General Counsel from 2008 to 2013, told FCIR in an interview. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

Other former DEP employees claimed to FCIR that the unwritten rule was implemented after Rick Scott, who has repeatedly denied climate change is the result of human activity, became governor of Florida in 2011.

The DEP denies that it has a policy on the matter.

Read more at the FCIR.

TIME Environment

El Niño Arrival Too Late for California Drought

"Too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California"

El Niño has finally arrived, but the precipitation brought by the weather event is unlikely to alleviate California’s severe drought, officials said Thursday.

“After many months of watching, El Niño has formed,” said Mike Halpert, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. “Unfortunately, this El Niño is likely too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California as California’s rainy season is winding down.”

El Niño, a cyclical phenomenon that lasts several years, begins with warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and eventually affects weather around the world. In the United States, it can lead to storms along the West Coast and affect hurricanes and other tropical storms. Tropical storm activity could be reduced due to El Niño, but it’s too soon to know for certain, the NOAA said.

Forecasters have been waiting to declare the start of El Niño for nearly a year. The late arrival may make El Niño-related storms “weak in strength” with “fairly low influence on weather inclement,” Halpert said.

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