Costa Rica’s green future overshadowed by rights debate

The renewables champion elects a new president Sunday at a pivotal moment in its ties with China
<p>image: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Bruce Thompson</a></p>

image: Bruce Thompson

Costa Rica’s two second round presidential candidates share a family name and a penchant for singing, albeit different genres, but that’s about where the similarities end.

A bitter and divisive election campaign that ends Sunday has pitted evangelical Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz against current minister of Labour and Social Security Carlos Alvarado Quesada. But it has focused ‘excessively’ on sexual and reproductive rights at the expense of sustainable development, according to Mónica Araya, director of citizen-led sustainability platform Costa Rica Limpia.

“We will pay a big price for not discussing topics where you see a lot of opportunity for smarter and cleaner development that affects the everyday lives of Costa Ricans,” Araya told Diálogo Chino.

Costa Rica has long championed progressive policies since abolishing its military in 1948 to free up public funds for education and health. Successive governments developed innovative environmental programmes including levying a tax on fuels to pay for biodiversity conservation and national park management.

However, in recent years Costa Ricans have raised concerns over the government’s leadership on environmental matters with a Chinese-backed oil refinery – cancelled in 2016 because it lacked a satisfactory feasibility study – featuring prominently.

So which Alvarado will better manage the China relationship and the country’s environmental legacy?

Policy continuity

Above all, Costa Rica needs continuity on environmental policy, according to former president José María Figueres.

The fact that climate change doesn’t feature on Alvarado Muñoz’s governmental plan is a scandal

“One hopes the next Costa Rican government, whichever it is, follows the path set out by many governments and maintains a coherent and progressive position with respect to the environment,” Figueres, who governed from 1994-1998, told Diálogo Chino.

National Restoration Party candidate Alvarado Muñoz’s environmental policy, as laid out in a manifesto that was released just four days prior to Sunday’s vote, is guided by the principle of ‘Christian stewardship’ – to protect God’s creations. The document makes no explicit reference to climate change.

The fact that climate change doesn’t feature on Alvarado Muñoz’s governmental plan is a scandal, according to Araya.

“I’m not optimistic about his relationship with science,” she says and adds that Alvarado Muñoz’s ‘scandalous’ public comments about gay people being sick demonstrate his lack of evidence-based thinking.

However, Alvarado Muñoz’s ‘populist’ tendencies may mean he tries to appease the majority of Costa Ricans who care deeply about the environment, Araya adds.

Alvarado Muñoz does pledge to continue Costa Rica’s advances in generating energy from renewables.

Did you know…

In 2017, 100% of Costa Rica's electricity was produced by renewable sources for a period of 300 days

In 2017, under Alvarado Quesada’s ruling Citizen’s Action Party (PAC), 100% of the country’s electricity was produced by renewable sources for a period of 300 days. Hydropower, which can have other negative environmental impacts on rivers and forests, generated 78% of the total with wind and biomass accounting for 10% each. Solar generated 1%.

Alvarado Quesada promises to make Costa Rica carbon neutral by 2021 and has a climate change adaptation plan and policies on electric mobility, recycling and oceans. The importance of cooperating with China to advance in renewables and sustainable transport is becoming “very clear”, Araya says.

China controversies

Despite scoring a number of successes in the environmental sphere since entering office in 2014, including passing a new law on zero emissions mobility and increasing marine protected areas from 12% to 15% of its seas, there have been controversies.

The announcement in 2009 of a joint venture between state-run oil company RECOPE and the international branch of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPCI) to build an oil refinery kicked-off a long-running saga which culminated in the project’s cancellation in 2016.

There are now more entry points for trade and investment between China and Costa Rica than when the two countries first established diplomatic ties a decade ago

The project was financed by a US$900 million loan from China Development Bank, around 70% of the total cost. It was met with anger by many sections of Costa Rican society on the grounds it would pollute the environment and fail to reduce the cost of fuel.

But in 2013, Costa Rica’s General Comptroller declared the feasibility study for the refinery invalid given that the company carrying out the study had links to the Chinese partner.

Araya says that there are now more entry points for trade and investment between China and Costa Rica than when the two countries first established diplomatic ties a decade ago, at which time the main ‘hook’ was the ill-fated refinery.

The recent ‘cementazo’ cement scandal (the -azo suffix in Spanish denotes magnitude or controversy) highlighted irregularities in the approval of a US$30 million loan from the state-run Bank of Costa Rica to a real estate developer for the purchase of Chinese cement following a government plan to break up a longstanding duopoly in the construction sector.

“Some people in government do not think big enough,” Araya says, adding; “they just stick to short term decisions and I think both the refinery and the cement situation confirm that.”

Citizen demands

Costa Rica’s low-carbon future may have received little attention in this presidential campaign but that has more to do with those framing the debate than how much citizens, especially young people, care, Araya says.

The most recent survey by Latinobarómetro, an authoritative gauge of Latin American public opinion, revealed that 73% of Costa Ricans agreed that the fight climate change should be a priority irrespective of its impacts on economic growth.

Somewhat unusually for a small, developing country, earlier Costa Rican governments regarded environmental protection and economic development as two sides of the same coin.

“You can’t have one without the other,” said Figueres. He points to the country’s promotion of environmental services and designation of national parks as examples of its pioneering spirit but concedes it has made more advances on land than in the ocean.

Araya says Alvarado Quesada is a better prospect for the continued promotion of environmental and climate change issues.

“If he wins, clearly there will be more space for us as activists and zero emissions advocates, to work with” she says.