Greetings From Costa Rica

Costa Rica has engaged in ambitious sustainable development policy for more than twenty years, what can we learn from the Central American nation?


Much of the global attention in terms of sustainable development is currently focused on whether the COVID-19 crisis will constitute the final straw in a long series of catastrophes which will spur developed nations to radically reimagine the ways in which their economies are run. The hope is that, after a paradigm-altering event, we will be able to rebuild better, with sustainable development being the core concern. However, Europe would not be the first to develop a truly ambitious sustainable development policy programme. Costa Rica, a small nation from the other side of the world, has been leading the way for more than twenty years. Which precedent did this policy set and what does it teach us? 

Before analyzing Costa Rica more closely, it is worth restating the current European situation. About 30 % of the EU’s recent  € 1.8 trillion recovery plan has been allocated to fight climate change and achieve European climate neutrality by 2050. While it is a considerable step in the direction of a ‘green recovery’, the deal notably stopped short of providing clear guidelines on how this money would be spent. This is especially significant as Poland, a country with a coal-heavy economy, stands to receive the largest proportion of the money in the recovery plan. Advocates of the deal have argued that we cannot expect countries whose economy has already been fragmented by the current crisis to fundamentally renegotiate their sources of revenue, especially in a global economic system dominated by countries which have an even worse track record in terms of sustainable development.  

The desire to prevent economic vulnerability is justifiable, but Costa Rica’s example suggests that the perception of sustainable development as a challenge to quick economic prosperity is flawed. Costa Rica has not only tackled sustainable development, but actually turned it into a propelling force as the nation grows. The country is home to a large part of the world’s rainforests, and it had been the site of intense logging and deforestation until the late 80s which drained its natural resources without generating equivalent capital in the country itself. Costa Rica’s government subsequently engaged in a policy of heavy regulation of logging permits, established a national forestry commission and instituted payments for environmental services to poor areas of the country. Later, these conservation and economic recovery efforts were augmented by a focus on sustainable energy and energy independence, pledging to the Kyoto Protocol and most recently, signing the Paris Agreement

Advocates of the deal have argued that we cannot expect countries whose economy has already been fragilized by the current crisis to fundamentally renegotiate their sources of revenue.

These policies had a striking effect. As it stands today, forests cover half of the country’s territory and more than half of these woods are protected by the government. Ninety-five percent of the energy produced in the country is from renewable energy, mainly hydropower, and the country is on track to achieve a net environmental surplus by 2050.  In comparison to the developing country of Costa Rica, Luxembourg, a country with a population 7 times smaller, produces approximately the same level of emissions. This is a true testament to the economic and social policies in place.  The government’s policies of reforestation and preservation have allowed it to maintain strong relationships and more broadly encouraged a healthy civic participation. The country’s preservation and sustainability efforts have also been part of its strategy to become a destination for ecotourism, with tourism generating now more than two-thirds of its economic output. The combination of these factors has meant that the nation also ranks very highly on the human development index, higher than some European countries like Moldova or even China

The government’s policies of reforestation and preservation have allowed it to maintain strong relationships and more broadly encouraged a healthy civic participation.

It should be noted that as in everything in our interconnected world, these policies have not just yielded positive results. Heavy reliance on tourism from abroad also means a heavy amount of emissions from air travel by tourists coming into the country. The country has also faced real pressures in urbanization, as it attempts to build the infrastructure to simultaneously support a growing population and not encroach on its forests. Part of the economy is still supported by industry, which includes open-air gold mines. Some researchers have also argued that hydropower and the dams it entails may lead to the release of significant amounts of methane by vegetation decaying in the dams.  

The sheer scale and degree of economic prosperity that the country has managed to derive from these policies constitutes a real testimony of how sustainable development is not an issue which is to be merely addressed, but a source of economic prosperity in the long term. The negative externalities of the country’s efforts can and should be tackled, but the economic and civic advantages derived from sustainable development provide a solid basis from which to approach them. The economy of Costa Rica was drained by capital and resource flight and in a precarious position, and the country instead reoriented to grow in a more inclusive way. As our leaders argue that our own currently precarious positions are reasons to hold back on sustainable development, it can be worth asking “if not now, when?” 

Art by Tina Smaile

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