As we reach the depths of January (and therefore the depths of Winter for our readers in the Northern Hemisphere), we thought we’d provide both some escapism and a positive story to beat those January blues.

In this piece we take a closer look at Costa Rica, generally considered an environmental success story and a shining example for other countries to follow.

Nestled in Central America, between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, with Nicaragua to its north and Panama to its south, Costa Rica is an ecological treasure. While it only makes up 0.03% of the world’s surface, it contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity (impressive, right?!). 

Beyond this, it has built up some pretty strong environmental and social development credentials – let’s check them out!

So.. what’s so good about Costa Rica?

As we’ve already briefly mentioned in one of our previous articles – 70 years ago, after a brief civil war, Costa Rica decided to abolish its military and instead divert the funds to environmental and well-being initiatives. This was just the start of being a true front-runner when it comes to building a sustainable future. 

Environmental Protection and Conservation

Like many of its neighbouring countries, logging became big business in Costa Rica in the 20th century. In the 1940’s, around 75% of Costa Rica was covered in rainforest. By 1987, it is believed that between half to a third of this cover was destroyed by logging.

To protect the environment, in 1997 the government implemented the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) Programme. This initiative gives money to landowners who take actions to protect the natural environment, such as conservation of biodiversity, clean water sources and carbon storage. This level of payment was worked out so that it would be more lucrative for landowners to protect their land than clear it. 

Today, 60% of the land is reoccupied by forest, and the programme is now funded using a 3.5% tax on fossil fuels. The Programme has given over €420 million to landowners in some of the poorest regions of Costa Rica, helping tackle poverty while protecting the environment. 

Alongside the PES programme, the government has now protected 25% of the country’s land, which has been set aside as National Park areas and other reserves, with 28 National Parks across this relatively small country! 

Renewable Energy

More than 98% of Costa Rica’s energy comes from renewable sources. In 2017, it set a global record when it ran for 300 consecutive days on renewable energy – a seriously impressive achievement. 

So… how has it managed this?! Costa Rica has a natural geography that allows it to capitalise on renewable energy, both from ‘traditional’ sources like wind and solar, but also – thanks to its large river network, high rainfall, and volcanoes – hydroelectric and geothermal power. It gets 67.5% of its energy from hydroelectric power, with a further 17% from wind and 13.5% from geothermal. Not only is the source of its energy good for the planet, but it also has universal access to electricity, the highest in any country in Central America.

A view of Arenal Volcano
Here’s one of such volcanoes – Arenal in Alajuela!

This being said, the country’s demand for oil is increasing, so why is that?

An improvement in living standards as well as the development of the country as a whole has led to more expendable income amongst Costa Rican citizens, who in turn are buying more cars; the number of vehicles in Costa Rica has tripled in the last 30 years. With the number of people able to afford cars increasing, oil demand is expected to continue growing. 

What now?

Costa Rica is a leading country in its efforts to conserve the natural world and address climate change. For all of its efforts, it received the United Nations Champions of the Earth award for Policy Leadership in 2019. Like many other countries, Costa Rica has vowed to decarbonise by 2050 – however, unlike many other countries, it has made real efforts to turn these commitments into real-life transformative policies. 

In 2019, it published a comprehensive Natural Decarbonisation Plan detailing its route to net zero by 2050. This shows clear signals of Costa Rica’s commitment to decarbonise across all sectors of its economy. The Plan is structured around the following areas:

  • Energy (transport – collective, private and freight, electricity networks, residential and commercial sector usage).
  • Industrial Processes.
  • Residues.
  • Agriculture.
  • Forestry and other land uses.

For each of these areas, the Plan lays out short-, medium- and longer-term actions and the related policy packages that can be taken to ensure transformation in these areas is achieved. 

Unlike many countries where decarbonisation is shown as more of an inconvenience, the Plan frames these policies in a positive way, where decarbonisation is something that makes sense to do – something other governments should pay attention to. 

The Plan also details ways to address its shortfalls in its decarbonisation journey so far, especially its transport sector and its rising demand for oil to satisfy its growing car demand. There are big plans to expand and electrify its public transport network with both more buses and trains to reduce demand for car ownership, as well as upgrading its electricity networks so they have the capacity to support a wider rollout of Electric Vehicle charging points. 

Within these upgrades to electricity networks, the Plan details ways to integrate storage systems and distributed generation, meaning that the previous 300-day streak of running on renewable energy may be permanent in the not too distant future for Costa Rica. 

Some of the stunning (and now protected!) rainforest in Monteverde

The Pura Vida Way of Life

Beyond its clear policy commitments, there is a general mindset in Costa Rica which is attuned to nature and the environment. The country’s unofficial slogan is ‘Pura Vida’ – which directly translates to ‘pure life’. 

The Pura Vida philosophy encompasses an optimistic outlook and a carefree and relaxed lifestyle. This is embodied in Costa Rica by choosing to live harmoniously with the natural world and embracing sustainable practices. 

We reckon integrating the Pura Vida mindset is something we should all try and do a little more of in 2024! 

Be Curious

Have a read of Costa Rica’s Natural Decarbonisation Plan – it is an interesting insight into an impressive agenda-setting decarbonisation plan that many countries should take heed of. 

Watch Gaia Vince’s TV show ‘Escape to Costa Rica’ which shows what a beautiful and special country it is (she is a journalist and scientist who writes great books too by the way!).

Read George Monbiot’s article which gives more detail into how the Costa Rican government laid the foundations for it to become the success story it is today.