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Living and breathing sustainability

Article - September 14, 2011
Costa Rica is the poster child for sustainable development and environmental conservation, having pioneered the concept decades ago and made phenomenal progress in the area
Many countries claim to be friends of the environment, setting aside land for natural parks, passing legislation to cut back on CO2 emissions, and dropping the term ‘sustainable development’ right and left until it practically loses its meaning.

Costa Rica, however, had been practicing what it preaches since long before politicians in most countries had even penciled the environment into their agenda.

Twenty years ago, for example, Costa Rica proposed to set aside 25% of the land for the conservation of biodiversity. Alfio Piva, First Vice President of Costa Rica, reminisces, “People thought we were crazy; they didn’t see the use of saving the birds, for example. But do you know how many people come to see our birds? A quarter of all tourists. Studies have shown that Costa Rica has greater avian diversity than Mexico, the U.S., and Canada combined, and more than all of Africa! Imagine that, in a country as small as ours.”

The idea of sustainable development also emerged in Costa Rica 20 years ago, an end to which the government has been making tremendous gains.

The country intends to be carbon neutral by 2021, the year it celebrates its bicentennial of independence. Already producing over 90% of its electricity from renewable sources, the peaceful Central American nation is well on its way to achieving this goal, one that most developing countries would take several decades to reach.

Going to the green extreme can also bring in investment, according to Anne Andrew, U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica and environmental lawyer. “I have long worked in the area of conservation and clean energy, and there is no country on the globe that is as committed to conservation and clean energy as Costa Rica is,” she says. “Costa Rica has made a commitment to being carbon neutral by 2021, and I think that commitment certainly opens up business opportunities in the area of clean energy here.”

Furthermore, First Vice President Piva says that Costa Rica is the only country in the world that complies with the Kyoto Protocol. “The signatories of Kyoto guarantee that we’ll maintain our emissions at the level they were in 1990, and Costa Rica is well below that. This is something the Costa Ricans have self-imposed, as we believe it is a challenge that is both possible and interesting: we’ve done economic calculations and we’ve seen that it’s not an expense but rather a benefit for the country. It’s possible to maintain CO2 neutral development at 5%,” he comments.

Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua, Melvin Saenz Biolley agrees. “We have an ethical commitment to protecting the environment. It also happens to be good business.”

Costa Rica’s forests certainly play a part in keeping carbon dioxide in check, and rather than losing ground to industrialization and urbanization, forests now cover more than half the territory, in contrast to just one-fifth in the 1980s.

Although this is a direct consequence of many years’ worth of reforestation efforts, Costa Rica’s forests can also sing victory thanks, interestingly, to the millions of dollars of debt the country has accrued with the U.S.

This debt-for-nature swap is a program made possible by the Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998 and forgives the debts of foreign countries. In exchange, the debtor must spend an agreed amount to restore and preserve tropical rainforests. With two debt-for-nature swaps under way, Costa Rica and the U.S. will invest more than US$50 million in conservation over the next 15 years, making Costa Rica the single largest beneficiary of this program.

“Costa Rica is a model for the world when it comes to investing in conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are key to addressing climate change,” says Mrs. Andrew. “I would encourage people to come and visit and observe the wondrous beauty of Costa Rica first hand. Hopefully they will leave with a much greater commitment to what we can all do toward sustainable development.”

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