Costa Rica has become a model nation in terms of its environmental stewardship and sustainability. Over the past few decades, the small country has managed to restore and protect its forests, and simultaneously create a grid powered almost entirely by renewable energy sources. They are also consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, and have a life expectancy exceeding that of the U.S.
Clearly, Costa Rica is doing something very right. The question is, what?
One of the earliest, and most important steps Costa Rica took on the path to prosperity was the abolishment of its military in 1948. The absence of a military freed up a large amount of money for other endeavors, such as education and healthcare. At the moment, Costa Rica offers free, high quality health care to all of its citizens, and spends around 7% of its GDP on education. For reference, the world average percentage of GDP devoted to education was 4.8% in 2017 . When considering the allocation of a revenue stream as large as a nation’s GDP, this 2.2% difference is quite significant.
However, the increased availability of government revenue had little effect on the health of Costa Rica’s natural environment until relatively recently. Shortly after the government decided to dissolve their military, Costa Rica underwent a period of extensive deforestation. Over the course of around 40 years, the country went from having a forest cover of over seventy five percent, to just slightly more than twenty five percent. After hitting this low point in the 1980s, the government decided to take serious action to restore its natural environment. Two of the most notable measures taken include the placement of a total ban on the of felling mature forest, and the issuing of payments to landowners in exchange for sustainably managing the trees growing on their property. These and other similar measures have proven to be very effective; The forest has regrown to the point that it now covers over fifty percent of Costa Rica’s total area.
These efforts to restore forested lands have proven to be very lucrative. Millions of tourists flock to the Central American country every year, and pour billions into its economy. In fact, Costa Rica’s tourism industry has now surpassed the export of bananas, coffee, and sugar (the country’s primary agricultural products) in terms of total revenue generated. These examples serve as conclusive proof that protecting and restoring forestland can have massive benefits for an economy as well as the natural environment. Bearing that in mind, it is easy to imagine countries with comparable biomes profiting from investing in a similar economic transition from agriculture to tourism.
In addition to its admirable environmental restoration efforts, Costa Rica boasts an incredibly green electricity grid. At the moment, they source approximately 73% of their energy from hydroelectric power plants, 15% from wind turbines, and 8% from geothermal, and much of the rest from renewable sources. In 2018, they claim to have generated over 98% of their electricity from renewables. At one point in 2017, the country went 300 days without deriving any of its electricity from fossil fuels.
While Costa Rica is certainly lucky in terms renewable resource availability, their grid would no doubt look very different if the government had not decided to take advantage of said resources. This is well illustrated by the fact that the grids of many similarly endowed countries are far less clean.
Despite these heartening statistics, Costa Rica is not without its issues. One of the largest is their predominantly fossil-fueled transportation sector. Car ownership in the country has been on the rise and electric vehicles have yet to penetrate the market in any significant way. If they do, it could cause revenue problems for several environmental programs that receive funding from taxes on gasoline. Exploitation of marine life is also a massive issue. In particular, the country is struggling to curtail the brutal practice shark-finning, and the raiding of sea turtle nests.
Still, Costa Rica far ahead of the national pack in terms of its environmental footprint, and commitment to green development. As if the accomplishments described earlier weren’t enough, the country has also placed a total ban on sport hunting and has implemented a strong green building certification program. They have also established a foothold in both the medical device and microprocessor manufacturing industries, and the international finance sector. All of the aforementioned sources of revenue are non-extractive, and place a relatively small load on the environment.
While many countries are struggling to protect their environments without inhibiting social progress, Costa Rica provides conclusive proof that the former goal needn’t come at the expense of the latter.