In February, Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado Quesada set out a vision to become the first zero-emission country on the planet by 2050.
Although Costa Rica has a slight edge over other countries — 98% of its energy comes from renewable sources and, in relative terms, its carbon footprint is tiny — tackling climate issues does bring unique challenges.
The country’s “National Decarbonisation Plan” seeks to push through these by focusing on four target areas: sustainable mobility, green building and energy, integrated waste management, and nature-based solutions. But in the steep climb to meet its goals, good ideas alone won’t be enough: the government is going to have to share the spotlight with citizens.
Monica Araya, founder of Costa Rica Limpia (Clean Costa Rica), a group that promotes clean development through citizen engagement, admitted that Costa Rica is greener than the average country. Fighting climate change is becoming part of Costa Ricans’ cultural identity, she added.
Climate change is not a contentious topic in Costa Rica, and the majority of the population not only thinks climate change exists, but supports policies to combat it. Some 98% of Costa Ricans believe that climate change is happening, according to the UN.
According to Araya, grass-roots organising by citizens is making climate change policies popular in the country and is driving decision-makers to rally behind them, something she said citizens in other countries can replicate.
“It’s citizens’ ideas that the governments are integrating into their narratives,” said Araya.
Strengthening citizen engagement
But if citizens don’t make changes that support green initiatives in their daily lives — such as buying electric cars or using public transportation — achieving the 2050 goal will be a challenge. For Araya, citizen engagement is necessary here too.
Under its sustainable mobility target, Costa Rica aims to have the first electric freight train by 2022, make all buses electric by 2035, and have nearly all cars and buses on its street running on electricity by 2050.
Road congestion is currently a huge problem — San José, morning traffic moves at less than ten miles an hour — and there is a reluctance to buy new cars. There were also only 107 plug-in electric cars sold in the country last year, and the demand for diesel vehicles is rising.
In 2016, through grassroots organising, citizens helped pass legislation that brought a charging infrastructure to Costa Rica to help boost the switch to electric vehicles. The coalition, which Araya was a part of, worked with Congress during 2016-2018 to pass the car charging laws, signed by President Solis in January 2018. Charging stations have now been installed throughout Costa Rica, including rural areas.
Alongside government initiatives, other organisations across Costa Rica have stepped up to involve citizens in decision-making processes and provide new ways to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.
In 2015, Costa Rica Limpia, with support from the Executive Secretariat of the United Nations (UNFCCC), took part in a global event where opinions from 10,000 citizens from around the world were gathered on climate change to put forth at the climate summit in 2015. One major consensus to emerge from the event is that 98% of the 78 Costa Rican participants supported investments in clean energy and transportation to reduce the dependence on oil.
Costa Rica Limpia has also introduced citizen fairs — with one in 2017 and another in 2018 — where citizens shape the narrative of why they quit using transportation that requires fossil fuels. The government is also planning on launching a similar initiative based off this model for decarbonisation, according to Costa Rica Limpia.
The government has also taken a more participatory approach to citizen engagement. In 2017, Costa Rica set up a review body, so civil society can decide what climate data citizens need to participate and improve access to information for local communities.
Costa Rica’s climate change plans come with a hefty price tag estimated at $6.5 billion in the next 11 years and may extensively contribute to a rising deficit, but Araya said, despite the challenges, it’s worth the risk.
“[Costa Rica] is small and we want to be different, because if you’re not different you’re irrelevant,” she said. “We have to punch above our weight.” – Amelia Axelsen
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)