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As we stood on our boards and paddled away from the cove at Malpais and turned south past the wave-break, I felt a rush of what Costa Ricans call pura vida—“pure life.” The wind was calm, the sun glaring, and the sea slightly rolling along this headland that includes the 3,000-acre Cabo Blanco National Park. Our guide, Andy Seidensticker, had moved to Costa Rica just to surf and paddleboard these waves at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast.
This excursion with Carolina Chavarria, executive director of Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper, topped off my water-filled trip to Costa Rica this past winter. With the park to our left, we paddled just outside the wave-break, chatting, watching wildlife, soaking in the sun until we reached a warm freshwater spring that bubbled up in the ocean about 100 meters offshore. Surrounded by the bubbles, we sat on our boards and rested before paddling back to the cove. As the wind picked up and swells rose higher, the return paddling became more strenuous, as did our conversation about the watery challenges facing Costa Rica.
There are as many problems as blessings in the country’s abundant waters, and Chavarria and her staff are energetically confronting those problems, many of which are caused by the country’s booming tourist industry. Costa Rica has exemplary environmental laws but they are poorly enforced. Restaurants, hotels, and home- and road-construction generate sewage and runoff that flow directly into rivers and the ocean.
In Santa Theresa, the home of the Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper, five miles from Malpais, the water supply descends from the country’s inland mountains out of a massive and rapidly expanding network of dams and through a snaking tangle of canals, pipes and dikes. Many of Costa Rica’s dams also produce hydroelectric power, which provides 80 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity. Government and business officials speak of this as “clean energy” that is “carbon free.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
A few months before visiting Costa Rica I had written a post for EcoWatch, “Dams Cause Climate Change: They Are Not Clean Energy.” Based on research I’d done in fighting dam proposals on my own river, the Cache le Poudre, as well as my work advocating for the already-dammed Colorado River, I’ve come to believe that hydropower is one of the biggest environmental problems our planet faces. Construction of hydroelectric dams around the world is surging dramatically, guided by the false premise that they produce clean energy, even as study after study refutes this claim.
How Does Hydropower Cause Methane Emissions?
The principal environmental menace of hydroelectric dams is caused by organic material—vegetation, sediment and soil—that flows from rivers into reservoirs and decomposes, emitting methane and carbon dioxide into the water and the air throughout the generation cycle. Studies indicate that in tropical environments and high-sediment areas, where organic material is highest, dams can release more greenhouse gas than coal-fired power plants. Philip Fearnside, a research professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, in Manaus, Brazil, and one of the most cited scientists on the subject of climate change, has called these dams “methane factories.” And, according to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, dams are “the largest single anthropogenic source of methane, being responsible for 23 percent of all methane emissions due to human activities.”
Even that number 23 may be low; the emissions can be huge even in temperate climates. A 2014 article in Climate Central offered a disturbing comparison: “Imagine nearly 6,000 dairy cows doing what cows do, belching and being flatulent for a full year. That’s how much methane was emitted from one Ohio reservoir in 2012. [Yet] reservoirs and hydropower are often thought of as climate-friendly because they don’t burn fossil fuels to produce electricity.” Another 2014 article in the same publication pointed out that, because very few dams and reservoirs are being studied, their methane emissions are mostly unaccounted for in climate-change analyses across the planet.
An article published in the 2013 book Climate Governance in the Developing World focused this failing on Costa Rica:
“These [methane] emissions, however, are neither measured nor taken into account in calculating Costa Rica’s carbon balance. Given that the nation’s electricity demand is projected to increase by 6 percent per year for the foreseeable future, and that the majority of this is to be met with increased hydroelectricity production, including such emissions in neutrality calculations would probably make it quite difficult for the country ever to achieve its goals.”
Indeed, in February and March of this year, Costa Rica’s government-owned electric utility issued press releases announcing that the country is on track to reach its “carbon neutrality” goals by 2021, stating that “88 percent of its electricity came from clean sources” in 2014 and that, during the first 75 days of 2015, it had been 100 percent powered by “clean” and “renewable” energy. News agencies across the world spread this misinformation about hydroelectric power. CNN claimed the prize for irresponsible reporting when it ran a TV news-segment, “A Carbonless Year for Costa Rica.” More surprising still, some American environmentalists also took the bait. Green groups, including many national organizations, splashed the stories and scientifically false information across social media—350.org ran a large Facebook meme celebrating Costa Rica’s achievement.
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