Costa Rica takes the long view on climate action – and bold steps now

Costa Rica takes the long view on climate action – and bold steps now

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Date: 16th July 2019
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature

Costa Rica’s road to decarbonisation is paved with political vision and painstaking planning – according to Andrea Meza, the country’s Director of Climate Change. Paul May and Mairi Dupar of CDKN report on Ms Meza's speech at the Global NDC Conference.

Costa Rica has a strong international reputation for being eco-friendly – as an early adopter of eco-tourism policies and wide-scale forest restoration and conservation. Between 1983 and the present day, the country’s forest cover has doubled.

But now Costa Rica is facing new challenges and opportunities, as the government is developing and delivering policies that will enable Costa Rica to do its part in realising the long term goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement calls for limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, it is well known that the voluntary commitments made by countries to curb or avoid emissions are not nearly ambitious enough for a 1.5°C world. Countries’ collective commitments still put the world on a pathway to a disastrous 3-4°C average temperature rise.

(According to the Climate Action Tracker, Costa Rica’s climate commitments are a lot better than most countries: they are “consistent with the 2009 Copenhagen 2°C goal and therefore fall within the country’s fair share range, but are not fully consistent with the Paris Agreement.’)

The recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that human-made emissions must reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 for a chance of limiting the average temperature rise to 1.5°C.

A strong political statement

Putting Costa Rica on the pathway to ‘net-zero’ rose to the top of the political agenda for President Carlos Alvarado Quesada. It became a matter both of core national development, and of his political legacy.

According to Andrea Meza, the Government of Costa Rica’s Director of Climate Change – speaking last month at the Global NDC Conference in Berlin, the President decided it was time to make a definitive political statement on climate change, backed by a suite of policies and implementing measures.

“It was a moment for big political decisions,” she said; “The President decided that decarbonisation was an opportunity for the country to generate welfare, to address the issues we face in our cities with a lot of congestion; and an opportunity to generate the new green and prosperous country we are dreaming of.

“We decided: if we want to decarbonise the economy, we need a long term plan. We cannot tell the people that we will be resolving the problems in 2050; we [need to] start right now. We will build a new economy with these new elements and we will not do it through incremental actions but a total transformation of the economy. What we are doing in the first four years is generating the basis for a new economy.”

An economy-wide decarbonisation plan

In February this year, the Government of Costa Rica generated an economy-wide decarbonisation plan. Based on detailed technical analysis, the plan concentrates particularly on the heavy-emitting sectors such as transport -- which is “our nightmare”, Ms Meza acknowledged. In all, there are ten sectoral packages which outline emission reductions strategies to 2050.

Other key sectors include power, building stock, industrial strategy, waste management, and land use. Cross-cutting opportunities exist to adopt nature-based solutions for many of these. Country-wide trends in political decentralisation and digitalisation also figure in the plans to decarbonise.

A near-term action plan to 2022 will form the basis for Costa Rica to submit an updated and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC or national climate plan) to the UNFCCC in 2020.

Making it work from the ground up

Costa Rica designed national emission inventories to gather data on different sectors (e.g. energy, agriculture). The country now has an extensive matrix of over 100 indicators that integrates monitoring and reporting for both the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the country’s NDC.

Despite the sophistication of this economy-wide system, a more integrated monitoring approach was needed for cities. To collect data in a consistent manner at the sub-national level, the Government of Costa Rica expanded a voluntary carbon neutrality programme for businesses – to include municipal governments.

The monitoring system is defined at the national level. Data collection is managed at the sub-national level. The government maintains the registry and incentivises cities to participate by offering official recognition to municipalities for their climate-saving actions.

The first call for submissions involved six local authorities. After the scheme was renewed for a second round, over 30 applications were received (current funding covers 14 cities).

The pilot project created a consistent methodology for cities to conduct emission inventories, aligning sub-national and national reporting. It also facilitated the flow of information from local authorities to the national level, resulting in a clearer picture of what is happening locally.

Just transitions

Ms Meza acknowledges that there is still much work to do: “With the current institutions that we have, we will not get there,” she acknowledged. To continue and complete the long term strategy for a decarbonised economy, Costa Rica will need fiscal reform – such as, “green tax reform”.

“More than 20% of the national income is related to carbon, to fuels, so this is a big challenge we face.”

The Government of Costa Rica is also taking care to assess the social impacts of its turn away from fossil fuels.

“The other important thing for [President Alvarado] is the just transition,” said Ms Meza. “We know we will have lots of social impacts if we do not do [decarbonisation] in the right way. It’s an important thing to say we will do it for the people.”

For instance, although 99% of the population have access to renewable electricity, gas consumption (e.g. for LPG cooking stoves) is a key source of emissions from low-income households, as consumer subsidies make gas more affordable.

This finding has initiated a discussion around transferring fossil fuel subsidies to support renewable energy in a way that safeguards poorer communities.


Image: Costa Rica rainforest, courtesy Ian Keating,

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