Costa Rica’s new president puts country’s environmental record at risk

Victory for Rodrigo Chaves concerns activists due to his support for fossil fuel extraction, threatening decarbonisation and conservation successes
<p>Rodrigo Chaves, the president-elect of Costa Rica, addresses the press following his election victory on 4 April. Comments during his campaign, and his support for fossil fuels while at the World Bank, have put environmental activists on alert. (Image: Mayela Lopez / Alamy)</p>

Rodrigo Chaves, the president-elect of Costa Rica, addresses the press following his election victory on 4 April. Comments during his campaign, and his support for fossil fuels while at the World Bank, have put environmental activists on alert. (Image: Mayela Lopez / Alamy)

Costa Rica’s former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves was elected as the country’s new president this past Sunday, defeating former president José María Figueres in the second electoral round with 53% of the vote.

The election of Chaves, a right-wing former World Bank economist who promised to shake up traditional politics during his campaign, has raised uncertainty among experts about the direction of climate action in Costa Rica – a nation that has won admiration in recent decades for its record on conservation and green issues. Chaves’ plans for his government, including on the environment, are seen as ambiguous, and he has previously made comments in favour of fossil fuel extraction.

Since 2014, Costa Rica has generated almost all of its energy from renewable sources, a position that it aims to strengthen as part of its Decarbonisation Plan to 2050, and its international commitments to the Paris Agreement. This progress, however, could now be at risk under the new government.

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During his campaign, Chaves expressed his willingness to exploit natural gas in Costa Rica, a measure that the country’s business chambers have proposed in the past to reduce the high prices of electricity. To date, however, the country has not ventured into the gas extraction industry and has not confirmed with formal studies the extent of the deposits of the fossil fuel it actually hosts.

Even so, during a televised debate ahead of the election, Chaves claimed that “if gas exists and we verify the existence of the resource, we can use it and maintain a healthy and clean environment.”

“I don’t think we have to take on the almost religious fanaticism of saying: let’s not allow Costa Ricans to use and benefit from a resource that god gave us,” the president-elect said.

According to Adrián Martínez, director of the Costa Rica-based non-profit La Ruta del Clima, this is one of Chaves’ most “worrying” proposals for climate action. Opening gas plants would prevent Costa Rica from meeting the targets of its decarbonisation plan and could affect the image of its successful ecotourism industry, an activity that represents 3% of GDP, he explained.

Chaves’ taste for fossil fuels is not recent. While serving as country director for Indonesia at the World Bank, his office financed several fossil fuel infrastructure projects, according to a report by the Bank Information Center (BIC), an NGO that monitors the policies and operations of international financial institutions.

During Chaves’ time in the Indonesia post (2013–2019), the World Bank financed, among several other projects, a 2,000 MW coal plant on the island of Central Java, for more than US$4 billion, as well as over US$1 billion for transport networks for coal plants.

In addition, the bank included coal plant expansion in plans for future development projects in Indonesia, but did not include any solar, wind and geothermal power, the BIC report said.

This came despite increasingly loud warnings from the scientific community about the need to transition to clean energy and, in particular, to leave coal behind, since coal plants can generate up to twice as much CO2 as those using other fossil fuels, such as natural gas.

Costa Rica’s record at risk?

Currently, Costa Rica is taking a leading role in two highly ambitious global initiatives: the 30×30 initiative that proposes to protect 30% of the planet’s ecosystems by 2030; and the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, which put proposals to completely eradicate all fossil fuels – including oil, coal and natural gas – on the table for the first time, at last November’s COP26 climate negotiations. Martínez told Diálogo Chino that the country would likely continue with both initiatives, but its credibility could be affected, should Chaves act on his promises to pursue fossil fuel extraction.

In its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, the Central American country, long recognised for its environmental leadership, committed to prohibit by law any type of exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels. It is currently prohibited by decree, which could only be lifted by an executive decision by the future cabinet. The outgoing government of Carlos Alvarado tried to pass this bill through the country’s congress in 2021, but did not get the necessary votes to succeed, due to the rejection of opposition legislators and pressure from business chambers.

The Chaves government plan mentions measures such as adaptation to climate change but without much detail, explained Pascal Girot, director of the school of geography at the Universidad de Costa Rica, and a veteran negotiator for the Costa Rican delegation to the United Nations.

Costa Rica has played a leading role in influencing global actions to curb environmental crises. I don’t think that will change.

The plan promises, for example, to “create a [climate] damage-reduction plan in the first year of government, that determines which public investments will allow it to be mitigated.” The previous government, however, was already developing a National Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which has even gone through a public consultation process.

Both Girot and Martínez pointed out that environmental issues did not carry much weight in the decisions of the electorate. For Rodrigo Chaves’ voters, the priority issues were corruption and the high cost of living, according to the latest poll prior to the election, conducted by the Universidad de Costa Rica. On the other hand, voters for the opposition candidate, Figueres, cited unemployment and the Covid-19 pandemic as priorities. Ultimately, Costa Rica saw an unusually low turnout, with more than 40% of eligible voters not casting their ballot.

Despite differences in voter priorities, both experts agreed that the country has a robust system of environmental laws and citizen participation, which would allow climate action to continue regardless of the government in power.

“Costa Rica has a tradition of playing a leading role in influencing global actions to curb environmental crises. I don’t think that will change,” Girot said.

Other environmental issues on hold

The change of government comes at a delicate moment for the protected areas of Costa Rica, which have suffered cuts of up to a third of their budget during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Chaves plan does not mention this issue, nor alternative sources of funding for state protected areas.

Elsewhere, some of the infrastructure projects proposed by the president-elect conflict with nature conservation. Chaves’ plan proposes the construction of a “dry canal” that allows the passage of merchandise by land between the country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

It is not the first time the construction of a port has been proposed for the Pacific coast of northern Costa Rica – an area visited by humpback whales and different species of sharks, rays and dolphins. The management plans of the Guanacaste Conservation Area, where the construction of the port has been proposed, identified the port proposal as a threat to the “ecological integrity” of the site.

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Another key issue for the country is the energy transition. Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 76% in the last 30 years, according to its latest emissions inventory. The increase was mainly due to the huge footprint of the transport sector and the growth in the number of petrol-powered vehicles. In an attempt to reduce this impact, the country’s decarbonisation plan announced a target of 85% of the transport fleet to be electric by 2050, as well as the creation of an electrified urban train network.

Chaves’ government plan also proposes an electric train network for the country’s Greater Metropolitan Area around the capital San José, the main source of its emissions, in line with the proposals of the decarbonisation plan. However, his proposals reject continuing with the same project promoted by the current government, for which there is already a feasibility study and a US$550 million loan approved by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

Instead, the Chaves plan proposes to “rethink a metropolitan electric train with rigorous studies that the current proposal is lacking”, without specifying what or how far-reaching this “rethinking” would be.

Outside of his written government plan, and primarily through interviews, Chaves has expressed his opposition to the Escazú Agreement, a regional environmental human rights treaty previously promoted and signed by Costa Rica, and named after one of its cities.

“It doesn’t add anything new to our legislation and it creates litigation issues, messing things up at a time when we need to get this country’s production skyrocketing again,” Chaves said during an interview released by his campaign on 17 February.

In this vein, the president-elect has also indicated openness to carrying out feasibility studies for once again permitting trawling in the country’s waters. This technique has been prohibited by the Constitutional Chamber of Costa Rica since 2013, due to its high impact on marine species and lack of a full scientific understanding of its consequences.

On top of his environmental antagonism, Chaves was elected president of Costa Rica in spite of numerous allegations of sexual harassment during his time at the World Bank – something that also raised questions during the election campaign around his commitment to gender and human rights issues. He was demoted by the bank in 2019 – but not fired – for his sexual misconduct.

Chaves’ plans for Costa Rica and its environment should become clearer in the coming weeks, with the president-elect due to take office on 8 May.