By H.E. Mr. Arnoldo Brenes Castro, Ambassador of the Republic of Costa Rica to the Kingdom of the Netherlands
One of the tangible outcomes of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26) is a Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use, so far subscribed by 141 countries. In this Declaration, a commitment was established to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”, which includes strengthening efforts to “conserve forests and other terrestrial ecosystems and accelerate their restoration”. This is an area where Costa Rica’s experience may be of interest to other countries. As a Costa Rican, I refer to it with much pride.
Indeed, for its successful forest and ecosystem conservation model, shortly before the COP 26 Costa Rica received UK’s Royal Foundation “Earthshot” award in the Protect and Restore Nature category, awarded to incentivize change and help repair the planet for the next ten years, a crucial decade for Earth. The award is an acknowledgement of the Costa Rican conservation model, which has made it possible to protect a large part of its biodiversity—around 5% of the world’s known species— combining a System of Conservation Areas with a Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program to reverse deforestation.
To assess the path Costa Rica took towards a remarkable recovery of its tree coverage, it must first be noted that between 1950 and 1987 forest coverage in Costa Rica dropped from 72% to 21%, with a deforestation rate of 3.9% per year, or 50,000 hectares, one of the largest rates in the world. This was due to a great extent to policies and legislation that provided positive incentives to agriculture, cattle ranching and forest clearing. Thus, a first key element was a change in policies and legislation to remove any such incentives.
On the other hand, Costa Rica’s National Forestry Law N° 4465 of 1969 provided for the creation and administration of a system of National Parks and Biological Reserves, which in 1998 was transformed into the National System of Conservation Areas. Between 1974 and 1978 protected areas expanded from 3% to 12% of the national territory, and from 1993 to 2011 from 12.5% to 26%. These protected areas include national parks, biological reserves, wildlife refuges, wetlands and private reserves. Costa Rica has currently some 163 protected areas covering 1,840,448 hectares, equivalent to 26.21% of the nation’s continental territory and 2.7% of its sea surface.
The final element was the development of a program to incentivize forest protection and reforestation. This was done mostly through the Payment of Environmental Services Program, which is a financial mechanism that promotes forest conservation and sustainable forest management. It is administered by the National Forestry Financing Fund or Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal (FONAFIFO), established in 1996 by the new Forestry Law No. 7575. A voluntary contract with land owners is drawn, through which land-use practices likely to secure environmental services are paid for by the government. Participants who implement forest protection, reforestation, natural forest regeneration, or agroforestry systems are eligible for payments because of the environmental services provided by their land voluntarily registered at FONAFIFO.
In accordance with the Forestry Law Nº. 7575, Costa Rica recognizes as environmental services the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (fixation, reduction, sequestration, storage and absorption); protection of biodiversity for its conservation and its sustainable, scientific and pharmaceutical use, research and genetic improvement, as well as for the protection of ecosystems and ways of life; water protection for urban, rural or hydroelectric use; and scenic natural beauty for tourism and scientific purposes.
The program is funded through Costa Rica’s fuel tax (3.5% of the fuel tax goes to the environmental services program), financial contributions through the ordinary and extraordinary budget, and donations or credits by national and international organizations, and public-private partnerships. Between 1997 and 2019, more than 18,000 contracts have been subscribed under the program, for an accumulated total coverage of 1,312,686 hectares and 8,089,423 trees in agroforestry systems.
Through the combination of these initiatives, today around 54% of Costa Rica’s land territory has tree covering.
In October 2020, the Payments for Environmental Services Program obtained the 2020 United Nations Global Climate Action Award, under the category “Financing for Climate Friendly Investment”. This award is granted to the projects that are recognized as innovative solutions to address climate change, and also drive progress in other Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), such as innovation, gender equality and economic opportunity.
In September 2019, Costa Rica also received the Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honor, for its role in the protection of nature and its commitment to ambitious policies to combat climate change. This award was presented to Costa Rica in the Policy Leadership category for its plan to decarbonize its economy by 2050, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Costa Rica’s National Decarbonization Plan (NDP) was presented in February 2019 and includes mid- and long-term targets to reform transport, energy, waste and land use. The aim is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, meaning the country will produce no more greenhouse gas emissions than it can offset through its forests and other carbon sinks. The NDP proposes a set of actions organized around ten axis related to the main economic and infrastructure sectors of Costa Rica’s economy. Of the economic sectors, transportation and mobilization pose pressing challenges, as the country faces a lag in infrastructure and standards, and the efficiency and access to public transportation should be improved. The NDP contemplates that 70% of all buses and taxis should be electric by 2030, with full electrification projected for 2050. Other challenges lie in improving processes to reduce energy use and carbon intensity in buildings, industry, agriculture, and livestock, as well as in collecting, treating, and reusing liquid and solid waste.
The electricity sector, on the other hand, is very close to producing zero emissions. Costa Rica has been running on more than 98% renewable energy since 2014; in 2020 it was 99.78%. Around 72% of its energy comes from hydropower, 14.9% from geothermal sources, 12% from wind and 0.54% from biomass and solar panels. In 2017, the country ran for a record 300 days solely on renewable power. The aim is to achieve 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2030.
When environmental concerns are placed at the heart of political and economic policies, sustainability and measures to combat climate change are both achievable and economically viable. In reality, we have no other choice at this time in history. Although many areas remain where there is still room for improvement, Costa Rica’s experience proves this is possible, and the strategies it has been implementing might be of help to some countries that share the will to bring about a much-needed progress in the global efforts to combat climate change.