Costa Rica strengthening its environmental model

Costa Rica continues to attract praise at international climate summits, as it banks on the recovery of its forests, which make up 52% of its territory, in order to meet its emissions reduction goal.

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It claims to have the highest level of biodiversity per square mile in the world, it’s outlawed oil exploration and open-cast mining, and it’s also passed a new law lobbied for by citizen collectives that declares all hunting activities for sporting or commercial purposes illegal. Furthermore, 90% of the energy it consumes comes from renewable sources and the majority of its population would like to curb its use of fossil fuels even further, as the implications of their use for global climate change are well-etched in the public conscience; at least, they would like to, but they don’t…

This is Costa Rica, a relatively small country which has nevertheless managed to recuperate forest cover to the point where it now makes up more than 52% of national territory, through policies that pay land occupants to maintain forests. It has also been able to project itself as a global leader on conservation, establishing itself as a model for progressive environmental policies at international summits and forums, such as the UN climate talks whose latest instalment took place in Lima, the Peruvian capital, at the end of last year.

Meetings and speeches at the latest summit were abundant with praise for Costa Rica and its ambitious goal of becoming a “carbon neutral” country by 2021, a label it would be able to use if it succeeds in removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it puts in. This challenge, enshrined in law in 2007, can be considered as a step forward for the global debate around climate change as it stands today, but privately Costa Rican authorities recognise that their ambition will be very difficult to achieve, primarily due to the growing levels of pollution that are generated each day by cars and other vehicles on Costa Rica’s roads, accompanied by an increase in the levels of fuel consumption.

“It’s very ambitious”, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon admitted last August, referring to Costa Rica’s target, although he was still willing to express his admiration for Costa Rica’s carbon neutrality goal. It is an ambition that could even signal the beginning of the “urgent and daring measures” called for by Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican Executive Secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which organises the yearly climate talks.

Politicians and activists alike in Costa Rica are conscious of the fact that the country’s unique environmental approach is, at the end of the day, a question of national development. This is according to Michelle Soto, a Costa Rican environmental journalist who, during her coverage of the latest talks in Lima, was faced with the dilemma of explaining away the lagging behind of her country in an area in which it is considered a model for the rest of the world.

“We’re seen as pioneers, but the fact is we’re moving a fair bit slower than we should be in order to meet our target”, Soto told the Spanish El País newspaper. “I still don’t see any progress on policy in the transport sector”, she claimed in reference to the fact that 70% of the country’s carbon emissions come from this sector, having increased sevenfold since 1980 according to World Bank figures. For every 1,000 inhabitants in Costa Rica there are 188 vehicles on the road, compared with 70 in Guatemala, 67 in Peru, or 54 in neighbouring Nicaragua. The country’s overcrowded roads are packed with cars where the driver is more often than not the only passenger.

“There have been proposals to press on with technologies such as hybrid vehicles, but we just have one taxi of this kind in the country”, adds Soto. “People also talk about boosting collective and shared transport, but little’s being done on that as well. Meanwhile, people continue to buy more and more cars because they live far away from their work – for a number of reasons to do with access to housing and property prices.

“What’s encouraging is that people are increasingly aware of the fact that talking about the environment is not all to do with trees and toucans: it’s all about discussing a real plan for development”, she says, alluding to topics such as the generation of clean energy or the country’s reprehensible record on waste water management.

Costa Rica still benefits from its green image and the credibility that stems from its eye-catching performance on conservationist policy, and yet the country “appears frozen in time” according to the conclusions of an annual academic report, State of the Nation, which nevertheless suggests some notable areas of progress. These include a doubling of the marine areas declared legally protected, a development that signals the importance of “blue issues” as well as “green” ones, as well as the establishment of an Administrative Environmental Tribunal, a government agency that is dealing with more and more reports and complaints of environmentally-damaging activities.

This upswing in environmental consciousness is reflected in a poll by the local office of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which suggests that the vast majority (75%) of Costa Ricans do not think that cutting down forests is justifiable simply on the grounds that it brings “development”, while also indicating that seven out of ten Costa Ricans believe their country to be more affected by global warming than other countries.

This article is an adaptation into English of the Spanish-language original, which was written by Álvaro Murillo and appeared in El País in December 2014, and can be found here.

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