COSTA RICA: AN ENVIRONMENTAL ROLE MODEL FOR THE WORLD

By Chloe Philpott


Climate change has been one of the most important worldwide issues in recent decades and will continue to dominate in years to come as every country has been forced to face up to the realities of global warming and its disastrous effects. In the worldwide fight against climate change, the small central American country of Costa Rica is a major global pioneer, deserving great attention and praise for its efforts. As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) hosted in Glasgow approaches, Costa Rica should be considered a model for countries worldwide but especially in Central and South America. Rewarded a ‘UN Champion of the Earth’ prize in 2019, outlined below are the reasons why Costa Rica should be considered an inspiration for its role in international environmental politics and some suggestions of how other countries could follow similar policies to those adopted by Costa Rica.


Firstly, Costa Rica has successfully stopped and in fact reversed deforestation. From recording one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, the country has successfully and innovatively reversed this trend through a national system of Payment for Environmental Services. By ‘putting a value on natural resources,’ this mechanism ensures the conservation of the rainforest and the reduction of land degradation by paying landowners for the environmental services they deliver. Private landowners receive transfers from the government for the work they carry out towards beneficial services such as forest and biodiversity protection and water regulation. The environmental and social benefits from this are numerous. Not only is this bringing environmental benefits through providing incentives for local people to adopt sustainable land use techniques, it also brings social benefits to many groups in society. It is estimated by the UN that 18,000 families in Costa Rica have benefitted from this program between 1997 and 2019 and women and indigenous communities have been specifically helped. In terms of indigenous communities, through 303 projects, 19 communities comprising 100,000 indigenous people have benefitted from the Program, enabling them to use the government transfers in order to provide educational centres, health centres and streets.


Considering Costa Rica’s huge successes with the Payment for Environmental Services, some consideration should be given to how this scheme could be applied more effectively across other countries, especially in the Latin American region but also beyond. This is a scheme which has been implemented worldwide however Costa Rica is fairly unique in the national scale of the programme. Similar schemes have been implemented in other countries however not on such a national scale or with such success. Given the current rate of deforestation in many Latin American countries, with an estimated loss of 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest in 2020, Costa Rica should be taken as a model for other countries in their attempt to reverse the destruction of the rainforest. Considering both the environmental and social effects in which the opportunities for many in local communities are improved through poverty alleviation and improved standards of living, this is a policy which governments across the world should consider enacting on a more national, comprehensive scale.


Secondly, Costa Rica has made detailed plans to put in place the Paris Accords and is one of the global leaders with regards to meeting the targets laid out in this international agreement. This is reflected in the National Decarbonisation plan 2018-2050 which addresses the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in numerous sectors in the economy such as infrastructure, transport, agriculture and energy. Its plans are based on the goal of limiting the increase of average temperatures to 1.5C in accord with the primary goal of the Paris Agreement and on the aim of achieving a decarbonised economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. In terms of energy, Costa Rica’s electricity production is already 95% renewable, coming mainly from hydroelectric power, and the country aims to raise this to 100% by 2030. In addition, an impressive aspect of this plan includes the plan to achieve the operation of 70% of buses and taxies being electric by 2035 and 100% electric by 2050.


When comparing Costa Rica’s plans to other countries worldwide, Costa Rica again appears as a global role model considering that many other countries’ plans fail to go far enough in order to meet the goals committed to in the Paris Agreements. According to a UN report card on the Paris Agreement goals, 75 governments have been selected as failing to meet the goals of the agreement in their plans. As the UN has published a Synthesis Report concerning the National Determined Contributions of members, it has announced that nations must increase their climate efforts dramatically if the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2C by end of century is to be met. According to the worldwide Climate Action Tracker which measures governments’ climate actions against the Paris Agreement based on the effects of current policies on emissions as well as pledges and targets, Costa Rica is among the highest performing countries, set to meet the two degrees target, with only Morocco and the Gambia characterised as set to meet the 1.5-degree target. Countries ranked as critically insufficient include Argentina, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and USA. Given this lack of commitment on the behalf of many of the top polluting countries, Costa Rica must be regarded as an inspiration for its dedication to the cause of sustainability.


Lastly, Costa Rica’s commitment to environmental action and its position as a global role model is evident as it co-chairs the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental group of 45 countries launched in 2017. The group’s intention is to secure a global deal to tackle the extinction of species and protect ecosystems worldwide with the aim of protecting at least 30% of global land and ocean. This number is based on scientific research which concluded that this is a necessary and realistic goal. As explained in the coalition’s aims, the future of the planet requires the protection and conservation of the natural systems which provide the food, air, water and climate needed to ensure humanity’s survival. We must therefore protect the natural systems in order to ensure a safe and secure future for subsequent generations. Its powerful statement being ‘We must act now, and we must act boldly,’ Costa Rica’s initiation of this coalition provides yet more evidence of the country’s commitment to ensuring a more sustainable future for our planet and the action it is taking in order to achieve this.


Overall, as the COP26 approaches and countries around the world are increasingly putting climate change on their national agendas, the above points outline reasons why Costa Rica should be considered as a role model in the sphere of international environmental politics. The country has adopted a wide range of measures over the past decades from halting and reversing deforestation to switching to reliance on renewable energy and taking measures to decarbonise the economy. It can therefore be regarded as one of the countries showing the largest degree of commitment to combat against climate change and protect the planet for future generations. In light of recent reports released by the UN and other research institutes concerning the failure of states worldwide to take sufficient action to meet the goals set out in the Paris Accords, it is of the utmost importance that other countries take note of the actions taken by this central American country and demonstrate a paralleled level of commitment. As the United Nations Secretary-General stated last month, 2021 is a make-or-break year to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees and, in spite of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, to ensure a prosperous future for the human population and the next generations, there is no alternative to steadfast action.