In 2019 Costa Rica, a small island with a population of 5 million, announced plans to decarbonise its economy by 2050. While many countries have promised to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement Costa Rica, who are responsible for around 0.02% of global emissions, became one of the first to turn these pledges into concrete policies, stating that decarbonisation made economic and social sense.

This isn’t the first time Costa Rica has made progressive choices. Over 70 years ago the country abolished the military and opted to be a country of peace, and around 50 years ago they first began pushing for innovative environmental policy. They’re now seen as a world leader in sustainability, but their plan isn’t just about lowering emissions, it also aims to provide an example for other countries to follow. By placing the environment at the core of political and economic choices, they hope to prove that sustainability is achievable and economically possible.

So, at a time when we could all perhaps use some uplifting news, I thought I’d take a look at what they’re doing.

What’s the plan?

Costa Rica’s national decarbonisation plan, unveiled in February 2019, includes all sectors and features both mid and long term targets. The strategy focuses on specific key areas to target including: reducing emissions at source (eg. energy, transport, agriculture, tourism, waste, and land use), creating more carbon sinks through reforestation and forest regeneration, developing local and international carbon markets, and conservation (including biodiversity, water resources, and local community development). 

While Costa Rica’s footprint may be small, the overall goal is to show that it can be done while also providing health and wellbeing to citizens, ultimately becoming an example that other countries could then seek to emulate.

But the plan also recognises that, in order to implement these things, proper measuring systems need to be in place that allow change to be monitored. Plus, the country needs to have the capacity to properly implement change and communicate it across all levels of society. Education and public awareness are also key components of the plan; aiming to get people involved in order to both build a more representative system of decision making and make sustainable lifestyle changes more accessible to individuals.

The strategy is designed to be holistic, getting people involved and tailoring policy to national circumstances while also attracting increased foreign investment.

The good news: energy and reforestation

Costa Rica already has a head start when it comes to domestic power sources. It doesn’t rely on coal for electricity and around 98% of the country’s energy is renewable (with plans for 100% by 2030). Energy is predominantly sourced from hydropower, followed by wind, solar and geothermal, and in 2017 the country ran for a record 300 days on renewable power.

Costa Rica has also doubled its forest cover in the last 30 years after decades of deforestation. Forest cover now stands at 53%, compared to 26% in 1983, meaning over half of its land surface is covered with trees. As the first tropical country to reverse deforestation, this is both a huge carbon sink as well as a huge draw for tourists, with the aim to increase to 60% by 2050.

Additionally, the country implements an ecosystem services law, which taxes gasoline and uses the revenue for reforestation. Implemented in 1997, the tax generates $26.5 million in revenue every year which is then redistributed to farmers and landowners working on rainforest protection or reforestation. They also specifically prioritise lower-income regions when distributing payments, resulting in 40% of recipients being people who currently live below the poverty line. Climate Change News predicts that if all 12 countries with tropical rainforests in Africa, Asia and South America implemented similar policies, they could collectively generate $1.8 billion annually while also fighting deforestation, lowering emissions and supporting rural communities.

What needs work: transportation

Transport is, by far, Costa Rica’s largest area of concern. It has the third-highest (and rising) car ownership rate in Latin America, and transport is responsible for 54% of the country’s emissions. The capital, San Jose, is known to be full of cars, with daily traffic jams and unreliable public transport options. One report found rush-hour commute times in San José centre had increased by more than 40% since 2015.

This problem is not unique to Costa Rica, global emissions from transport are expected to grow at a faster ratethan those from any other sector, but transport is often neglected in climate plans that focus principally on decarbonising electricity. But Costa Rica wants to address this.

Firstly, the decarbonisation plan aims to make 70% of all buses and taxis electric by 2030, with full electrification by 2050, and Costa Rica has lifted taxes on electric vehicles to encourage their adoption. In 2019, the number of sales of electric cars doubled

Since COVID hit, lockdown has also seen strict limits imposed in Costa Rica on when people can use their cars, slowing traffic significantly. Since then bike sales have reportedly increased, coinciding with a recent increase of cycle lanes. In 2019 new legislation was introduced which required Costa Rican authorities to assess the possibility of building non-motorised infrastructure when making road improvements, as well as requiring municipalities to build cycle lanes on all new roads, while companies would be granted tax breaks for building bike racks and buying bicycles for employees. In reaction to the pandemic, a proposal has also been put forward to install temporary bike lanes and widen pavements. Plus, November 2019 saw the launch of Omnibikes, the first bike share scheme in San José. While the prices are still high (approximately £21 per month or £1.30 per hour), all of these moments of progress can still be significant.

There is still more to be done when it comes to cycling, however. The increase in cycle lanes has helped but is not yet perfected. The lanes remain as a single east-to-west corridor rather than a fully interconnected network. The more safe and appealing options, the more campaigners expect to see increases in riders.

Another approach is Rutas Naturbanas, a riverside project in San Jose working to build a 25km green path along the two main rivers in the city. The walkway is designed to be a clean and safe route people can use to commute on foot or bike, as well as an avenue to enjoy nature. The project has secured permission for specific stretches of land, but urban regulation in Costa Rica can be complex to navigate. Regardless, the government is supportive of these types of schemes. They named Rutas Naturbanas as one of the actions taken in the first year of the National Decarbonisation Plan, alongside pledging to restore 20% of San Jose’s rivers and surrounding areas by 2050, and to build a network of walkways that also function as biological corridors.

Additionally, buses are a key part of Costa Rica’s approach.

 If we’re going to talk about decarbonisation, changing the buses is much more significant than changing to electric cars. The most vulnerable people are the ones who use the bus… The state does not invest in terminals or central stations bus stops, information for users or segregated bus lanes. You get only roads and no other investment in anything else that’s not roads.

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Currently, the state doesn’t subsidise public transport in Costa Rica, instead putting different contracts out for tender. Bus companies have gained political power and have been resistant to forming a connected, electronic payment system, leading to confusion over different routes, unreliable timetables, and vague information.

But things are changing. San José now has several bus lanes, though they are currently all short. If the city is able to create a connected network, buses will run much faster than cars in the city, and hopefully lead to an uptake of public transport.

Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the planning for electric passenger and freight trains. The plan to build Costa Rica’s first electric passenger train aims to link to other cities in San José’s wider area, hopefully reducing traffic and congestion on the busiest routes into the city centre. There is a train on this route already, but it runs on petrol and is unreliable. The new train will be low carbon and utilise an electronic payment system while running every five minutes in rush hour. There will also be a push to link it to the rest of the city via a network of accessible buses, walkways and cycle routes, providing viable alternatives to cars for many.

Agriculture

After transportation, agriculture and waste account for the largest portions of emissions in Costa Rica. The plan proposes new waste treatment plants, recycling and composting systems to drive down emissions from landfill, as well as incentivising cattle ranchers and pineapple/banana growers to reduce emissions.

Initially this may seem challenging:

Costa Ricans, including the ones in the first family, are fond of meat. The president laughed when I asked him about going vegan. “I don’t think that will happen,” he said.

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However, it doesn’t have to be incompatible with the country’s culture. If farmers in Costa Rica, especially cattle ranchers, adopt regenerative practices it is possible to make sequester huge amounts of carbon rather than release them. While it may take a long time to get the whole world to shift to a plantbased mindset, this can be done quickly and is financially beneficial for farmers too.

Financing the plan

Money is one of the largest questions when it comes to Costa Rica’s plans; the price is already estimated at $6.5 billion in the next decade, which the government has said will be shared between the private and public sector. When President Alvarado took office in May 2018 he promised to halve the fiscal deficit by 2022, some critics wonder whether the cost of decarbonisation plans could threaten this promise.

Some of the main financial challenges include bus owners saying that electrified fleets would need more money from the government or higher passenger fares, while taxes linked to fossil fuels, including new cars, account for 20% of public revenue. Lowering fossil fuels reduces the amount of money brought in by these taxes. Car importers want the government to crackdown on used cars, which tend to pollute more, while others think that raising the fuel tax is politically risky.

The government has always been clear that international financial support will be necessary for decarbonisation, but this can also be complex to arrange due to measurement.

Measuring is often one of the most complex issues when it comes to decarbonising because it’s hard to know who is responsible for which emissions. Should we measure emissions produced within a country, or also include emissions from further afield that a country’s economy relies on? For example, currently, emissions from international air arrivals aren’t included in calculations despite Costa Rica relying heavily on tourism.

Being unable to measure not only makes it hard to decarbonise, it also makes it hard to finance. If Costa Rica sells its carbon sinks as offsets for foreign emissions, then these can’t be used as part of domestic reductions. But if it doesn’t sell them there’s less motivation for international investment into decarbonisation, as investors can’t see direct benefits.

At the same time, there are hopes that large infrastructure projects like the electric train can help the country improve financially by providing jobs. While returns on investment may take longer, the electric train alone is expected to transport 200,000 people each day, which is a lot of paying customers.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say what will happen in Costa Rica. But, there are some things that are important to note. Firstly, they’re trying. Not just with empty words, but by attempting to put concrete policies in place to actually change something, and I’m hopeful that this can both act as a template for other countries and a push for international cooperation. While measurement issues may make it hard to track all of Costa Rica’s emissions, it also highlights the need for global collaboration to make decarbonisation work. After all, the responsibility for lowering emissions from flying can’t fall exclusively on Costa Rica.

Secondly, I think one of the large successes of Costa Rica’s push is in how they frame the need for action on climate. Climate action needs to be part of a larger social justice and human rights movement because it’s inherently tied to improving quality of life for all.

the vast, sprawling San José metropolitan area needs to be fundamentally redrawn. More apartments, more shops, more sidewalks, more public spaces for people to socialize. And fast, modern, safe public transportation. Ms. Dobles wants her compatriots to see that this is not about emissions alone. “It’s also about quality of life,” she said.

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Many of the policies that create more sustainable worlds, such as investment in public transport, regeneration and rewilding, biodiversity conservation, localised economies and increased green space also have major benefits for people too. Where we have destroyed the earth under extractive capitalism, to restore it also looks like improving the lives of everyone. This seems to be something Costa Rica both grasps and aims to demonstrate to others. Here’s hoping other countries take it on board.

To learn more about how these are connected read about degrowth here, universal basic income here, and regenerative agriculture here.