What Costa Rica can teach the world about low-carbon economies

Ex-president José María Figueres talks exclusively to Diálogo Chino about Costa Rica's transition

For 94 consecutive days this year, Costa Rica derived 100% of its electricity from renewable sources and harbours realistic ambitions of becoming the first developing country to have an energy matrix consisting entirely of renewables. The Central American country has also led on environmental protection, promoting the benefits of ecotourism as both a tool for conservation and a driver of economic growth.

As countries look to transition to low-carbon economies at the COP21 in Paris, former Costa Rica president and chair of Carbon War Room José María Figueres spoke to Diálogo Chino editor Isabel Hilton about how his country became an example of sustainable development and what giants like China can learn from their experience.

Isabel Hilton (IH): Why did Costa Rica decide to embark on an environmental, low carbon emissions, pathway?

José María Figueres (JMF): Those in government made the decision 40 years ago. We very quickly began a lifestyle and type of development that is much more environmentally friendly and in harmony with nature. The first steps were the creation of the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE, in the Spanish acronym), which specialised in bringing electricity to the whole country and which, since the beginning, has backed renewables, starting with hydroelectricity.

Since the institution was evolving and the country was growing, other forms of renewables were being developed, such as geothermal and wind, so that now Costa Rica is a country that gets 98 or 99% of energy from renewables. Following this political decision, more than 30 years ago we started developing a system of national parks which now cover 34% of our country’s territory. These have served as an economic motor, an attraction for our ecotourism industry, which is the second biggest industry in the country and which generates most employment, especially in rural areas. 20 years ago we put to the world a carbon tax, with revenues going to a special fund for the payment of environmental services.

These payments allowed us to accelerate the rate of reforestation in the country, paying farmers to plant trees, and this also allowed us protect our other ecosystems like aquifers in areas that feed our hydroelectric plants. Then a few years ago Costa Rica decided to declare that it would be carbon neutral by 2021. This target, which is ambitious, is one which we should work towards independent of whether it will require more or less time to achieve it.

The ecotourism sector is Costa Rica's second largest employer (image: Kansasphoto/ Flickr).
Ecotourism is Costa Rica’s second largest industry (image: Kansasphoto/ Flickr).

IH: You have neighbouring countries that have chosen another development path, what would you tell them about your experience?

JMF: Every country chooses its own type of development depending on its needs, its will and what they want from their future. From very early on, Costa Rica backed the path I’ve described because it saw it as the one with the greatest benefit. In social terms, our indicators are above regional averages. In economic terms, we are a middle-income country, and in environmental terms, although we still have much to do, especially in the transport sector, I would say that we’re a powerhouse. There are many countries from all over the world that have come to observe and understand what we’ve done through creative and innovative mechanisms which have always sought to unite the economic with the environmental.

IH: One could say that Costa Rica is a small country. Do you believe that your experience could be useful for other countries, irrespective of their level of development, or industrialised countries, who could look to Costa Rica and learn something?

JMF: Costa Rica is a small country, but being small can sometimes be an advantage in moving quickly, as we’ve done in the environmental sphere. Today, however, it seems as though technology has advanced sufficiently and we have additional financial instruments, which give practically any country that wants to move decisively towards a low-carbon economy the power to do so. I think that moving in this direction depends on a few things. Firstly, a decision of conscience, which is to do the responsible thing that the planet demands. We don’t have a planet ‘b’, this is the only one and we have to look after it.

Secondly, you have to create awareness about the benefits of a low-carbon economy, and explain what one can do alongside a economic development to keep aspiring to levels of well being enjoyed elsewhere in the world.

Third is to adopt a philosophy of partnerships. Partnerships between the public sector, the business sector, with civil society and with regional neighbours. And why not also with countries from elsewhere? This low-carbon pathway, which we are starting to transition to, is the path that has evolved over 200 years since the industrial revolution and which is now exhausted. It’s one we’ve never walked before. For the first time in history humanity is ready to do it and that’s why it’s important that we learn from each other.

IH: You were just listening to Chinese perspectives [at a COP21 event]. How important are these for Costa Rica?

JMF: What China is doing has global importance. Today, all the countries in the world could agree on lowering carbon emissions, but if China doesn’t, well then we’d have an increase in emissions anyway and climate change would worsen. In other words, China is absolutely central and indispensible to any global agreement that we achieve. But China goes beyond forming part of a global agreement. China is saying two very important things.

Firstly, China is putting forward a timeframe that will include a peak in carbon emissions in 2030 and from there it will begin to drop, that is bringing forward by ten years what it was going to do. This is very important, it is very significant and it gives additional hope to the whole world that we can effectively control climate change. The second thing that China is saying is that it’s prepared to share with other countries its timeframe and methodology for peaking emissions and the work it will do to make it a reality. That way other countries can learn lessons.

IH: Do you think there are lessons that China can learn from Costa Rica, in environmental protection, for example?

JMF: I think we can all learn from each other. Costa Rica has certainly learnt how to better look after its environment, but independent of whether it’s a small country, like many others can find it difficult to mobilise quickly. When China makes a decision, the country moves, and it really moves. It does it in such a way that the choices China is making and announcing and which it is already incorporating in its 13th Five-year plan, which will take effect from next year, are very important. They will help to put the world on a low-carbon emissions trajectory.