Costa Rica’s Presidential Candidates Square Off on the Environment

Source: Tucancillo

The first round of Costa Rica’s elections will be held on February 6, with 25 candidates vying to become the 49th President of Costa Rica.

Voters will also select the next two vice presidents and all 57 members of the National Assembly. If no presidential candidate receives 40% of the vote, a second round will be held on April 3 between the top two contenders. 

The pandemic has dominated much of the discourse in this year’s election. Unemployment, rising inflation and economic recovery are key concerns for likely voters. Corruption is also a major factor after six mayors, including San Jose’s Johnny Araya, were arrested on corruption charges in November.

Costa Rica’s environmental agenda is at stake and has been a frequent topic at the debates. Candidates offer varying views on the route toward decarbonization, oil and natural gas extraction, trawling and the ratification of the Escazu Agreement.

Jose Maria Figueres of the National Liberation Party, who served as President of Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, leads the crowded pack in the University of Costa Rica’s latest presidential poll, with 15% of likely voters. Figueres is the brother of former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Cristiana Figueres and the son of former President Jose Figueres Ferrer.  

Trailing him is Lineth Saborio of the Social Christian Unity Party at 14%. Saborio previously served as Vice President from 2002 to 2006 and before that headed the judicial police.

Far-right evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvardo, who finished second in the 2018 elections largely due to his opposition of same-sex marriage, is polling at 11%. The leftist social democratic congressman and environmentalist Jose María Villalta of the Broad Front party is next with 8%, while the former Minister of Finance Rodrigo Chaves, whose campaign has been marred by allegations of sexual harrasment while working at the World Bank, is close behind at 6%. 

With just days to go, 41% of voters remain undecided, leaving much uncertainty about the outcome. 

This article takes a look at four core environmental issues and the views of the five frontrunners.

Oil and Natural Gas 

Oil and gas extraction will continue to be a hot topic for the next government. The current administration partnered with Denmark to launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at last year’s UN climate conference, which aims to end fossil fuel production. On the other hand, the National Assembly blocked a law that would permanently ban oil and gas extraction, despite uncertainty over whether significant and exploitable reserves even exist in Costa Rica.

Villalta’s plan calls for phasing out the use of oil, natural gas and coal by 2040, and he has been a leading advocate in the National permanently ban fossil fuel exploration. Figueres has also been vocal about moving on from fossil fuels, claiming the “abolition of oil as a source of energy will be the new feat of the Costa Rican people.”

Fabricio Alvarado, who warns of the dangers of “green fundamentalism” in the New Republic Party’s platform, takes a different approach. He has called for forming strategic alliances between the state and private sector to promote the extractive industry, and believes oil and gas development could help generate employment and stimulate economic growth.

Saborio and Chaves have been much less outspoken on environmental issues. Neither have published plans that address these topics to the extent that Villalta or Figueres do. 

“I believe that the country should prioritize and delve deeper into clean energy sources, such as solar, wind, water and biomass, and the use of organic matter as an energy source. However, I would not rule out a priori the possibilities that natural gas could give the country, according to existing scientific studies,” said Saborio in an interview with La Republica.

In his 24-page plan, Chaves fails to take a clear stance on the issue of oil and gas production. 

The next president will be tasked with carrying out Costa Rica’s National Decarbonization Plan, launched under the current administration of President Alvarado in 2019. Much of the plan is focused on eliminating emissions from the transportation sector and the construction of a light rail transit system in San José’s Greater Metropolitan Area. 

National Decarbonization Plan

Costa Rica was recently offered $271,300,000 in financing from the Green Climate Fund for the train.

To achieve the phaseout of oil, natural gas and coal by 2040, Villalta has proposed revising, updating and implementing the National Decarbonization Plan. He has been a proponent of green bonds to help finance Costa Rica’s decarbonization efforts.

Figueres has supported the train, although he plans to review the project’s execution plan. His plan makes several references to the country’s decarbonization commitments and is largely aligned with the current goals.

Fabricio Alvarado has been an outspoken opponent of the train, falsely claiming that this system would benefit only 5,000 people. More accurate predictions suggest that upwards of 190,000 could benefit from the train. His continued advocacy for oil and gas production also runs contrary to the plan’s roadmap toward carbon neutrality.  

Like Villalta, Chaves supports green bonds. He also backs the creation of a modern rail system, but does not back the current government’s plan to move the train project forward.

When asked if she was in favor of decarbonizing the economy in an interview with El Financiero, Saborio said that “we must promote the energies that allow us to advance in this commitment, which is worldwide. 

But she also said: “There are some things that need to be done gradually in that direction.”

Escazú Agreement

The ratification of the Escazu Agreement, a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations, has been an important issue over the last few years. The treaty seeks to allow public access to information, promote citizen participation in environmental governance and provide access to environmental justice. It includes the world’s first binding provision to protect the human rights of environmental defenders. While Costa Rica signed the agreement back in 2018, the National Assembly has failed to ratify it.

Villalta has been a champion of the Escazu Agreement in the National Assembly and is the only one to mention the treaty in his government plan. The Broad Front platform puts human rights at the center of its governing philosophy.

Rodrigo Chaves has criticized the Agreement, claiming it “does not add anything positive” in the January 18 debate. Chaves says the agreement is part of the internationalist agenda that runs counter to the interests of Costa Ricans.   

Fabricio Alvarado has also opposed the agreement, citing his support for the private sector, which has often been at odds with the treaty. The representatives of his New Republic Party unanimously opposed its ratification in the National Assembly. 

Saborio, too, opposed the ratification of the Escazu Agreement in a consultation done by Noticias Monumental. 

While Figueres has struck a softer tone on the matter, he has indicated it is not worth the effort needed to ratify it


Trawl fishing has been a contentious issue during the last two administrations. Luis Guillermo Solis, who presided over Costa Rica from 2014 to 2018, introduced a Bill for the Development and Sustainable Exploitation of Shrimp in Costa Rica, which would have reinstated trawling licenses. Guillermo Solis eventually withdrew his proposed legislation following a massive public backlash. 

More recently, the current National Assembly approved a bill that would permit trawling but was subsequently vetoed by President Alvarado. The veto was upheld by the Assembly.

Only a handful of the 25 candidates openly support trawling and none of the five frontrunners are unequivocally in favor of permitting.

While Saborio has been less than definitive on the trawling debate, the majority of her party voted to approve permitting in the National Assembly.

Villalta, the sole representative of the Broad Front party in the National Assembly, opposed the legislation. Figueres is against trawling, although his party was split over the recent legislation in the Assembly. His government plan highlights the need to support small- and medium-scale fisheries.

Chaves was noncommittal when asked in an interview with La Republica:

“We cannot say if this is a go or a no-go, because we do not have studies. It is irresponsible, as in the case of the train, to make decisions with mediocre information.”

While the New Republic Party plan addresses Costa Rica’s fisheries at length and reiterates its support for small- and medium-scale fisheries, it fails to directly address the issue of trawling.

Note: La Ruta del Clima does not endorse any political party. However, it calls for the informed participation of citizens in electoral processes.

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