Sustainability Superhero: Why You Should be Rooting for Costa Rica and President Alvarado

Gabrielle Heal is second year International Relations student at King’s College London. She is a staff writer at International Relations Today. 


“His actions serve to remind the world that even small nations can take the lead,” as Ban Ki-Moon, former United Nations Secretary-General, describes Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado following the leader’s awarding of a place in Time’s Next 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Striking a similar note with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s “no one is too small to make a difference,” the Central American country of Costa Rica, led by Alvarado as of 2017, has great sustainability aspirations and even greater passion, perseverance, and dedication to transform these aspirations into an impactful reality. Costa Rica is proving that there are no excuses when it comes to combating climate change, and that every country has a role to play in the response to such a mammoth global threat. 


Costa Rica has for centuries been a trailblazer in the promotion of human rights and sustainable development in Latin America. The country eliminated the death penalty in 1877, and the army was abolished in 1948 to instigate a peaceful future following the country’s civil war, military funding subsequently redirected to welfare sectors such as education and healthcare. On another hand, the past few decades have witnessed Costa Rica completely reverse its deforestation. The effect these actions have had on Costa Rican citizens is clear: In the World Happiness Index, the country regularly takes the number one spot among Latin American countries, and the Happy Planet Index ranks it No. 1 in the world for promoting long, happy, sustainable lives. While situated in such a tumultuous region, the nation has been a bright light, a beacon of hope for the future of Latin America as a whole. President Alvarado sees himself as only continuing this legacy, furthering it in order to ensure a safe and prosperous future for his country, its citizens, and especially his young son, Gabriel.


During president Alvarado’s inauguration in 2018, the new leader announced his plans to completely decarbonize the entire country by 2050. He went on to describe the sustainability journey ahead as “titanic and beautiful.” Costa Rica, under President Alvarado, is aware that time is of the essence. Their plans for action, albeit critics may see them as far-fetched, maintain an element of urgency that other countries lack in their policy. 


The Decarbonization plan takes a holistic approach, including commitments to transforming both economic and social systems. There is a keen focus on public and private transport, energy, industry, agriculture, waste management and soil and forest management. According to Costa Rica’s National Meteorological Institute, 64% of the country’s emissions come from energy use, and more than two thirds of that is from transport. Alvarado has thus put a lot on his attention on transforming the transportation industry, a stubborn task considering there is much technological advancement in this particular industry that still needs to take place. What is most fascinating about this Decarbonization plan is that Costa Rica ardently believes that transitions towards sustainability do not have to be a hindrance on development and growth; the plan includes a map for modernizing the economy, creating jobs and boosting economic growth. 


The common narrative today implores the wealthy, developed nations of the world to shoulder the enormous economic task of combating climate change; the World Bank estimates that mitigation and adaptation are likely to cost billions of dollars annually for the next several decades. The Polluter-Pays Principle demands that the countries who have caused the problem, those who have historically polluted the earth, should be responsible for paying for the damages now, while the Ability-to-Pay Principle demands that whoever maintains adequate resources to pay now, regardless of the past, should be funding action. 


Alas, Costa Rica brushes aside this narrative, putting the global threat in its global context. Against all odds, the Central American country is standing up and taking a lead in the battle against climate change that many would claim is meant to be fought by the USA, UK, China, India, etc. Alavarado leads with an understanding that investing in the protection of Costa Rica’s biodiverse land and the atmosphere above it, despite arguably fitting into neither the Polluter-Pays Principle nor the Ability to Pay Principle, is only setting the country up for a fruitful, happy, prosperous future. Costa Rica is setting an example for every other nation around the world, big or small, rich or poor, that mitigating and adapting to climate change is a unique journey for all countries but is a journey all should take nonetheless, no excuses. 


World Bank. “The Cost to Developing Countries of Adapting to Climate Change: New Methods and Estimates.” Consultation Draft (2005)

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