Costa Rica: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

Costa Rica is considered to be the most biodiverse country on the planet. In an effort to preserve the natural habitats of this nation, Costa Rica has recently emerged as a global leader in promoting environmental policy.

Welcome to Costa Rica

As the only country in the Western Hemisphere without a national army, Costa Rica is a relatively peaceful and prosperous nation that boasts tourism as its most profitable industry.

Costa Rica spans the isthmus of Central America. It has tropical coastal plains, mountainous areas and a temperate central plateau where the majority of the population is located. Costa Ricans have enjoyed a contiguous democratic government for more than 100 years. This stability of this nation, combined with its relative affluence, distinguishes Costa Rica from its Central American neighbors.

Traditionally, the Costa Rican economy has been primarily supported by exporting tropical agricultural products such as coffee, bananas and sugar. More recently, the Costa Rican tourism industry has been growing rapidly, particularly the niche of ecotourism. The country has also been developing robust medical device and microprocessor industries. As of December 2018, Costa Rica’s gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 3.3% the previous year to a total worth of $58 billion USD.

Unfortunately, Costa Rica is inextricably linked to its more volatile neighbor of Nicaragua, as Nicaraguans making up around 75% of immigrants that migrate to Costa Rica. As the violent crisis in Nicaragua continues to push thousands of migrants out of this country, Costa Rica has become increasingly overwhelmed by asylum applicants at their border. Furthermore, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have a history of political disputes that often center on certain Costa Rican territories, such as the San Juan River and the northern tip of Calero Island, which is located in the river.

Environmental Issues of Costa Rica

The legacy of decades of deforestation in Costa Rica is often cited as one of the main environmental issues facing this nation. Although many agriculture, settlement and infrastructure projects demand vast tracts of forest be cleared, Costa Rica passed a ban in 1996 on the razing of mature forests.

Recent studies have shown that Costa Rican agriculture has been able to thrive with this ban in place. In fact, the Costa Rican government offers rural farmers will incentives to reforest pastures in an effort to increase land usage for nondestructive ecological purposes. The Ministry of Environment, for example, encourages Costa Rican citizens to protect their native land by providing grants or cash payments to farmers committed to sustainable management of their agricultural lands. Costa Rica is therefore considered to be a global leader as a result of the success of its fight against deforestation.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica's lush rainforests were under threat from deforestation during the 1990s. Image Credits: hagit berkovich/shutterstock.com

As is often the case with other nations, Costa Rica’s political disputes have had ecological impacts. The country’s ongoing quarrel with Nicaragua over Calero Island reached a boiling point in 2010 as the Nicaraguans dredged the San Juan River near the island and dumped massive amounts of sediment into the island’s wetlands. A 2014 assessment indicated that some of the damage caused is irreversible.

Despite its prosperity, Costa Rica has had difficulty combating poachers and illicit hunting activities. Illegal shark finning occurs often in Costa Rican waters. Many coastal residents also raid the nests of endangered leatherback sea turtles and sell the eggs as a delicacy. As of July 2018, Costa Rica became the first Latin American country to ban sport hunting tourism in an effort to protect their endangered species. Any individual that participates in the illegal activity of animal hunting for sport in Costa Rica can be subject to a fine of up to $3,000 USD and even four months in prison.  

Environmental Policies of Costa Rica

As a stable and prosperous nation, Costa Rica is often praised and ranked among the world leaders when it comes to tackling environmental issues.

Costa Rica is considered among the most progressive nations on Earth with respect to climate change. In 2010, departing president Óscar Arias announced that Costa Rica would become the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021.On February 24, 2019, the Government of Costa Rica announced their National Decarbonization Plan, which aims to create a completely green economy in terms of transportation, energy, construction, agriculture and land usage by 2050.

Costa Rica: World Leader for the Environment. Video Credits: Latin America and the Caribbean/YouTube

Costa Rica has also evolved from its previously conservative environmental policy to one that is dedicated to sustainable development throughout the nation. In a case study article for Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index project, former environmental minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez noted that he used the EPI to inform his country’s environmental policies. Rodriguez stated, “I believe that our initiatives to put taxes on water discharges and regulate inefficient fossil fuel consumption owe their success to the EPI,” Rodriguez wrote. “With the EPI, I was able to prove that the most competitive nations were precisely those with high environmental standards.” The former minister added that Costa Rica continues to use the EPI as a tool to inform its environmental policies.

Clean Technology in Costa Rica

Costa Rica marked a major clean technology milestone in 2015 when it was powered for the first 75 days of that year by renewable energy. Since then, Costa Rica has surpassed 300 consecutive days of 100% reliance on renewable energy sources throughout the entire country.

According to a statement from the state-owned Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the Central American nation used a combination of hydropower and geothermal to meet its electricity needs for the first two-and-a-half months of 2015. Officials said heavy rains allowed them to generate a large amount of hydropower. The country relies on diesel as a backup source of power generation during drier times.

Costa Rica boasts a whopping 51% of its land covered by forestland.

Costa Rica boasts a whopping 51% of its land covered by forestland. Image Credits: hagit berkovich/shutterstock.com

While hydropower and geothermal are the main pillars supporting Costa Rica’s renewable energy efforts, the country has also been stepping up its solar and wind power installation. With a little help from the United Nations Development Program, Costa Rica has been able to bring power to remote villages through solar panels. As of 2018, 73.8% of Costa Rica’s electricity was generated by hydroelectric plants, while the remaining energy was sourced from wind, geothermal energy, biomass and solar energy.

In addition to the installation and use of renewable power technology, Costa Rica also has numerous programs that send students to the United States and other countries to study renewable energy. Many American universities have exchange programs set up that involve students and renewable energy experts to travel down to Costa Rica for their studies.

A Clean Future?

With a prosperous society, relatively small size and progressive government, it appears that Costa Rica has a very clean future ahead of it. The country is aiming to become carbon neutral within the next five or six years and many experts have said it will likely hit that target.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on the 22nd May, 2019.

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