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Apr 24, 2019

Plastic-Free and Carbon-Neutral; Can Costa Rica Keep its Promises?

Costa Rica’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality and eliminate single-use plastics by 2021 is either a global inspiration or a cosmic delusion.


Davey Braun

Costa Rica has made two gargantuan promises. The Costa Rican government has pledged to rid the country of single-use plastics and transform its infrastructure to carbon-neutral status, both by 2021. These commitments are interlinked, as carbon – typically oil – is the main ingredient used to process plastic.


Costa Rica’s population is composed of less than 5 million people; however, it is a world leader in renewable energy sources, including hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar and volcanoes. Over the past four years, the country as a whole has operated 100% on sustainable and renewable energy, with no use of coal, oil or natural gas, for a total of 300 days (with 75 days straight days in 2015 and 76 straight days in 2016).

Poás Volcano, Costa Rica. Photo by Alejandro Leiton

Costa Rica’s new president, 38-year-old former journalist Carlos Alvarado, recently announced a plan to make his country the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021. That year marks the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence from Spanish colonial rule which began with Christopher Columbus’s landing in 1502.

In addition to basing all electricity generation on renewable resources, which gives Costa Rica one of the lowest ratios of greenhouse gas emissions to electrical consumption on the planet, the biggest challenge in the way of fully decarbonizing by 2021 is to eliminate fossil fuels from the transportation sector.

According to the country’s National Meteorological Institute, 64% of Costa Rica’s emissions come from energy use, more than two thirds of which comes from transportation, and the country’s rapidly expanding private transportation sector remains largely petrol-dependent.

While a total elimination of fossil fuels by 2021 is unrealistic, one goal of carbon neutrality aims to offset the use of coal, oil, and gasoline combustion by a corresponding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere, such as reforestation. Forest density has doubled in Costa Rica since 1984, from 26% to 52% this year.

Monteverde, Costa Rica. Photo by Ben Ostrower.

But, in order for Costa Rica to reach its zero-emissions goal, it must dramatically initiate policies to promote the use of renewables in transportation, both in public and private sectors, such as offering tax incentives for its private corporations and citizens to purchase electric vehicles.

Read next on TOJ: Three Things Everyone Can Do to Fight Climate Change Right Now

With Costa Rica leading the way in promising a carbon-neutral future, several other countries within Latin American and the Carribbean, as well as European countries like The Netherlands and Germany, are following suit by setting their own carbon neutral goals as well. Perhaps an ambitious, inspirational goal can be more influential than a readily obtainable one.


The ocean fills up with 8 million tons of plastic every year and many experts predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Tamarindo Beach, Costa Rica. Photo by Zachary Shea.

Costa Rica is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity in only 20,000 square miles. Considering the geography of Costa Rica, with many important rivers that connect the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the country is an ecological linchpin. The Tárcoles River, which drains approximately 67% of Costa Rica’s untreated organic and industrial waste, is the most contaminated river in Central America, precipitating a deleterious impact on human health.

Sea Turtle at Ostional, Costa Rica. Photo by Juanma Clemente Alloza

“A plastic bag takes a thousand years to decompose.”

The Costa Rican government, led by President Quesada, has made progressive environmental decisions to close zoos, end oil drilling, reverse deforestation, and designate one-quarter of the country as protected areas. Costa Rica’s Ministries of Health and Environment and Energy, the United Nations Development Programme, and local governments are coordinating to institute a comprehensive national to strategy eliminate single-use plastic by the year 2021.

Green Frog at the Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Photo by Trevor Cole

Plastic bags, bottles and straws are only used for a few moments but take hundreds of years to decompose. A single plastic bottle can take more than 450 years to decompose, while a plastic bag can take more than a thousand years. Large plastic debris chokes and entangles wildlife, and further, small particles of plastic are ingested by marine life, thus entering the food chain for human consumption. Costa Rica’s new national strategy is to replace these unnatural plastics with renewable materials that can biodegrade within six months.

Single-use plastics have a huge impact on the Costa Rican economy because tourism contributes over 6% of the country’s GDP. If the beaches become filled with plastic waste, people will stop visiting.


In 2018, Costa Rica was the largest plastic importer in all of Central America, according to the United Nations Development Program. An estimated 550 tons of plastic are dumped daily in Costa Rica; much of it ending up as part of the Costa Rican landscape, polluting rivers, lakes, and beaches.

Plastic bottles and debris on the beach. Photo by John Cameron.

Transforming Costa Rica into a plastic-free zone is a national strategy that will rely on voluntary action across national industries as well as at the community level.

Public institutions like hospitals and the Ministries of Education, Justice, and Social Security will stop purchasing single-use plastics, but the question remains whether these practices will trickle down to the individual consumer.

The country will also need alternative biodegradable products, incentives to comply with policies, and punishments for bad actors. The country of Ireland proved that a 15-cent tax per plastic bag can drop consumption by 90%. But, as of right now, there are no laws in Costa Rica to establish a tax or create prohibitions for the use of plastic.


Admirably, Costa Rica is moving towards a plastic-free and carbon-neutral future despite undeniable corporate pressures, the same ones that control United States policy through tainted lobbying practices.

“US leaders manipulate voters through media spin and semantics.”

In contrast to Costa Rica’s noble commitments, the United States leadership continually enacts policies that fly in the face of public interest by manipulating voters through media spin and semantics (i.e. popularizing the term “The Death tax” for the estate taxation of the wealthiest 0.2% of the population, or “Death Panels” for advance directives health care counseling). In this case, Trump has taken the strategy of utter denial, labeling climate change as the “Greatest hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.

Read next on TOJ: A Buried Report; Trump Refuses to Believe it

In 2017, President Trump announced that the U.S. would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, an agreement by over 200 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, based on the rationale that “The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy,” and “put (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.”

According to the Clean Air Council, only one-quarter of 1% of the more than 7 billion pounds of discarded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is recycled each year in the U.S. This degradation of the planet will continue so long as US policy is predicated on the belief that the engine of economic growth is the use of fossil fuels.

Plastic Bottles take more than 450 years to decompose. Photo by Jonathan Chng

The Costa Rican government amended its constitution in 1994 to include each citizen’s right to a healthy environment, one that is free of contamination. In fact, more than half of the world’s countries have some degree of a guaranteed, specific right to public health and medical care for their citizens written into their national constitutions. The United States is one of only 86 countries that still does not. US leaders have disregarded their citizens’ inalienable right to a clean environment, as well as the economic interests in a clean, sustainable, and domestic supply of electricity.

Read next on TOJ: In the US, a lawsuit against the federal government could galvanize climate change policy.


“Converting all cars to electric power seems resoundingly unrealistic.”

Costa Rica is considered a world leader in wildlife conservation and ecotourism. But, if Costa Rica is to become the first country to achieve carbon-neutrality on such an abridged timeline – replacing or offsetting fossil fuels with renewable resources – it will need to reconcile its growing private transportation sector’s dependence on oil. Converting all cars to electric power before the bicentennial of the nation’s independence seems resoundingly unrealistic. Therefore, carbon-offsetting must ramp up at scale.

Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica. Photo by Miguel Bruna.

Furthermore, for Costa Rica to eradicate all single-use plastics by 2021, it will need to speed up the production of packaging alternatives that are 100% recyclable or biodegradable, not petroleum based.

Both the plastic-free promise and the carbon neutral commitment represent a cultural paradigm shift. New, affordable alternatives must be made pervasive and accessible. Consumer habits must adapt. New inclinations towards re-use and new innovations built on re-designs must emerge.

These evolving policies spark an opportunity for companies to disrupt the consumer marketplace by introducing eco-friendly products and packaging, as well as renewable energy repurposing processes. If Costa Rica lives up to these promises, it will prove that the engine of a country’s economy does not need to come at the cost of its peoples’ health.

Feature Image: Iguana eye. Photo by Thomas Lipke.

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Sep 12, 2019

How climate change is driving emigration from Central America

Rising global temperatures, the spread of crop disease and extreme weather events have made coffee harvests unreliable in places like El Salvador. On top of that, market prices are unpredictable.


Clouds of dust rose behind the wheels of the pickup truck as we hurtled over the back road in Palo Verde, El Salvador. When we got to the stone-paved part of the road, the driver slowed as the truck heaved up and down with the uneven terrain. Riding in the back bed of the truck, Ruben (not his real name) and I talked while we held on tight, sitting on sacks of dried beans that he was taking to market.

“It doesn’t come out right,” he said, “it just doesn’t pay anymore to work the land. I take out a loan for seed, and then I can’t count on making it back to pay off my debt.”

Ruben told me then, for the first time, that he planned to save up his money to migrate out of El Salvador. His story is playing out across Central America among many migrants and would-be migrants.

When I spoke with Ruben, it was 2017, nearly 20 years after I had first spent time in his community, a coffee cooperative in El Salvador’s central highlands founded in the 1990s. Over those two decades, the cooperative’s hopes and dreams of a sustainable livelihood producing coffee for a global market have been dashed.

Rising global temperatures, the spread of crop disease and extreme weather events have made coffee harvests unreliable in places like El Salvador. On top of that, market prices are unpredictable.

In the back of the pickup truck that day, we talked about gangs too. There was increasing criminal activity in the town nearby, and some young people in the town were being harassed and recruited. But this was a relatively new issue for the community, layered on top of the persistent problem of the ecological crisis.

As a cultural anthropologist who studies factors of displacement in El Salvador, I see how Ruben’s situation is reflective of a much broader global phenomenon of people leaving their homes, directly or indirectly due to climate change and the degradation of their local ecosystem. And as environmental conditions are projected to get worse under current trends, this raises unresolved legal questions on the status and security of people like Ruben and his family.

This man lives in the Dry Corridor on the Pacific Coast of Central America, an area that has suffered high rates of poverty and malnutrition.
Todd Post/Bread for the World Institute, CC BY-NC-ND

Land and livelihood

Migration from Central America has gotten a lot of attention these days, including the famous migrant caravans. But much of it focuses on the way migrants from this region – especially El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras – are driven out by gang violence, corruption and political upheaval.

These factors are important and require a response from the international community. But displacement driven by climate change is significant too.

The migrant exodus from Central America includes many people impacted by climate change, although other factors play a part as well.

The link between environmental instability and emigration from the region became apparent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Earthquakes and hurricanes, especially Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and its aftermath, were ravaging parts of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Many people from El Salvador and Honduras lived in the U.S. at the time, and the Bush administration granted them Temporary Protected Status. In this way, the government of the United States recognized the inhumanity of sending people back to places struggling with ecological disaster.

In the years since those events, both rapid-onset and long-term environmental crises continue to displace people from their homes worldwide. Studies show that displacement often happens indirectly through the impact of climate change on agricultural livelihoods, with some areas pressured more than others. But some are more dramatic: Both Honduras and Nicaragua are among the top 10 countries most impacted by extreme weather events between 1998 and 2017.

Since 2014, a serious drought has decimated crops in Central America’s so-called dry corridor along the Pacific Coast. By impacting smallholder farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, this drought helps to drive higher levels of migration from the region.

Coffee production, a critical support for these countries’ economies, is especially vulnerable and sensitive to weather variations. A recent outbreak of coffee leaf rust in the region was likely exacerbated by climate change.

The fallout from that plague combines with the recent collapse in global coffee prices to spur desperate farmers to give up.

Compounding factor

These trends have led experts at the World Bank to claim that around 2 million people are likely to be displaced from Central America by the year 2050 due to factors related to climate change. Of course, it’s hard to tease out the “push factor” of climate change from all of the other reasons that people need to leave. And unfortunately, these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.

Scholars are working hard to assess the scale of the problem and study ways people can adapt. But the problem is challenging. The number of displaced could be even higher – up to almost 4 million – if regional development does not shift to more climate-friendly and inclusive models of agriculture.

People who emigrate from Central America may not always fully realize the role climate change plays in their movement, or think of it as the final trigger given all the other reasons they have to flee. But they know that the crops fail too often, and it’s harder to get clean water than it used to be.

Environmental factors are playing more and more of a role in Central Americans’ decisions to leave home.

Seeking a protected status

Ruben recently contacted me to ask for a reference to a good immigration lawyer. He and his daughter are now in the United States and have an upcoming hearing to determine their status.

Just as he predicted a few years ago, Ruben couldn’t make a living in El Salvador. But he may find it hard to live in the U.S. too, given the mismatch between refugee law and current factors causing displacement.

For several years now, scholars and legal advocates have been asking how to respond to people displaced by environmental conditions. Do existing models of humanitarian response and resettlement work for this new population? Could such persons be recognized as in need of protection under international law, similar to political refugees?

Among the most complicated political questions is who should step up to deal with the harms of climate change, considering that wealthier countries pollute more but are often shielded from the worst effects. How can responsibility be assigned, and more importantly, what is to be done?

In the absence of coordinated action on the part of the global community to mitigate ecological instability and recognize the plight of displaced people, there’s a risk of what some have called “climate apartheid.” In this scenario – climate change combined with closed borders and few migration pathways – millions of people would be forced to choose between increasingly insecure livelihoods and the perils of unauthorized migration.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter. ]The Conversation

Miranda Cady Hallett, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Human Rights Center Research Fellow, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover Photo: A farmer carries firewood during the dry season in Nicaragua, one of the Central American countries affected by a recent drought. Neil Palmer for CIAT/flickrCC BY-NC-ND

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