Carbon neutrality: a hard sell in Costa Rica

Politicians love the idea of a zero carbon future, but few can explain how to get there, says Monica Araya

Costa Rica recently fell from 3rd to 54 in the Environmental Performance Index (Pic: Arturo Soltillo/Flickr)

Costa Rica recently fell from 3rd to 54 in the Environmental Performance Index (Pic: Arturo Soltillo/Flickr)

By Monica Araya

Last week, Luis Guillermo Solís, president of Costa Rica spoke to the nation after his first 100 days in office.

His new government, he insisted, seeks to catalyse change by fighting corruption, institutional paralysis and fiscal deficits. That carbon neutrality, or climate change, did not make it to his speech is unsurprising.

The fundamental question is not about climate policy as such, but whether the new government will support a commitment to a clean infrastructure.

Solís was a surprise in our political life: a former professor turned president who has formed a cabinet formed that, at least in the public psyche, is made of non-politicians.

Our current minister of environment and energy, for example, is an academic and the minister of trade comes from the private sector.

This administration has said little on climate and carbon neutrality.

The electoral promises insisted on clean energy and on the importance of adapting to climate impacts. In fact, this silence might be due to a quiet recalibration of climate priorities that is underway in Costa Rica.

Local politics are waking up to louder concerns of climate vulnerability in Central America. Our region will be in trouble and we increasingly know it – and worry about it.

And while the risk of climate related impacts have been on the radar screen of senior experts, much to their frustration, the official narrative has been centered on mitigation, climate neutrality and carbon offsets.


Let’s quickly go back to the 2008 when climate actions by developing countries were uncommon.

Back then the world was getting ready for a “big bang” moment in Copenhagen. It was then Costa Rica told the world that we would be carbon neutral by 2021.

That would have meant changing course in our transport sector, the main source of our carbon emissions. It would have also required an open technical and political debate and extensive participatory process for mainstreaming carbon neutrality in our economics and politics.

It did not happen. The main barrier has been political – not technical.

We are not a large polluter: our main “carbon” headache boils down to transport (and agriculture). San José is small and our chaotic and dirty transport does have solutions.

The issue is that no one in the previous administrations was willing or able to lead the cleaning up of this sector (one that has historically got its way with politicians by killing the train in the past as well as blocking good ideas to avoid congestion).

So this is the bottom line:  no carbon neutrality can be achieved with environmental integrity if we don’t tackle transport emissions.

In fact, the previous administration left government admitting that transport was our Achilles’ heel and one of the “pending” challenges to be faced by future administrations.

Busted flush? 

Carbon neutrality never reached the status of official policy of the state.

It became an aspiration made of a loose menu of voluntary measures and, in many cases, good intentions by stateholders that want to move forward with sustainable development projects.

At some point, the support from some business sector leaders meant that they moved faster on carbon neutrality than the state.

Their impulse was not climatic; instead they understood it as market differentiation opportunity – Costa Rica’s carbon neutrality as  global brand – and some jumped at the opportunity of being the suppliers of carbon neutral products and services.

The Climate Change Directorate focused its time on setting the rules of the game for those carbon neutrality claims by encouraging a voluntary scheme.

It is understandable that carbon neutrality is the unlikely hook for the new administration.  It is a concept with baggage.

The concept has failed to impressed the technical community in Costa Rica, especially among those who are concerned with our vulnerability to climate change. Transport emissions are up and environmental performance is middling. Despite the bold “green” narrative of the previous administration, the country now ranks number 54 in the latest Yale Environmental Performance Index.

Before the previous administration left office, it cited a study suggesting that Costa Rica was getting closer to carbon neutrality (we had achieved, the argument went, over 80% of our goal).

But this had little resonance in policy circles and even less impact on public opinion. By then they faced an unfriendly public and their political party was dealing with a historical defeat in the national election.

Signalling change

So if the government wants to signal change in climate policy, what can they do? My recommendation is to build a new consensus around modern infrastructure and articulate why infrastructure as usual is risky.

This is the time to make transformative investments – with local and foreign funds, with private and public capital –  in urban infrastructure so we make it efficient, resilient and clean.

Efficient because we live off exports and tourism, resilient because we are highly vulnerable to climate change and earthquakes and clean because we this century we need to build infrastructure independent from oil. Why pospone the transition?

Internationally, the silence of the president on carbon neutrality should not be automatically be judged as a change of hearts.  In the first 100 days, he has supported the national moratorium on oil exploration and exploitation until 2021.

Now he needs to collect his political capital and insist on something he said on the campaign trail: he was not convinced of the benefits of building an oil refinery in Costa Rica.

Solís could make a contribution to the international climate debate by working with China on bilateral cooperation package that is both climate and development friendly. Instead of a loan of the US$1.5 billion oil refinery, we could be invest these funds on modern and clean urban solutions.

Costa Ricans despise our dirty and congested transport life. Kids are getting their lungs polluted.  Delivery trucks are wasting money in traffic jams.

Solís would win the hearts and minds if he left a legacy of modern, resilient and clean infrastructure.  His team needs to weigh the benefits of the refinery against the benefits – fiscal, business and for citizens – of  transport efficiency, fuel savings, and improved air quality.

Then there is the road to Paris. The commitment to this urban transformation would also provide a credible economic rationale for framing our national contribution in toward the global climate.

He would be able to articulate to the world why Costa Rica – and he in particular – is not backtracking on carbon neutrality but shifting instead to a more credible commitment anchored on investing in the right infrastructure in the long term.

Monica Araya is founder and director of southern development thinktank Nivela. Follow her as @MonicaArayaTica

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