Backsliding into COP27
In his first five months as President of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves has worked to set himself apart from the previous administration of Carlos Alvarado. Chaves’ tenure has been characterized by attacks to press, polarizing stances on COVID-19 and vaccinations. More recently, he raised the possibility of an end to democracy in Costa Rica. Addressing representatives of the National Assembly, Chaves said the following:
"If a crisis like the one the country experienced in 1980 comes to us, in the circumstances we are in, because we do not know how to manage our macroeconomy, I do not guarantee anyone that our children will have democracy."
The new president has also taken some troubling positions on environmental issues. Chaves has moved to unravel the previous administration’s plan for a multi-line, high-speed electric train in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) and has been an outspoken opponent of the Escazu Agreement. His administration has flirted with the possibility of natural gas exploration, entertained bringing back trawling, and has proposed making significant changes to the structure of the Ministry of the Environment (MINAE).
Costa Rica has long been regarded as an environmental leader on the global stage. As we near this year’s UN Climate Conference in Egypt, it is clear that Costa Rica is headed toward a period of environmental backsliding, putting its international reputation in jeopardy.
Train Off Track
In 2019, Costa Rica released its National Descarbonization Plan 2018 - 2050.. Un componente clave para descarbonizar el sector del transporte de Costa Rica es la construcción de un tren eléctrico en la GAM. El plan establece que el tren de pasajeros estará en funcionamiento en 2035 y el Fondo Verde para el Clima offered Costa Rica $271.3 million in financing.
During the campaign, Chaves said he backed the creation of a modern rail system but did not support Alvarado’s plan to move the train project forward. Once in office, Chaves dismantled the executive authority overseeing the train’s construction. Chaves has said he will propose a new plan based on former President Luis Guillermo Solís’ proposal that will have only a single line and be much smaller in scale than Alvarado’s plan.
A Future in Fossil Fuels?
Costa Rica has been a global leader in fossil fuel phaseouts. A moratorium on oil and gas exploration began in 2002 under President Abel Pacheco and was extended until 2050 in 2014 by President Luis Guillermo Solís. President Alvarado backed a law to permanently ban oil and gas exploration, but the National Assembly ultimately shot it down.
At last year’s climate conference in Glasgow, Costa Rica partnered with Denmark to launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA)), inglésan international coalition of governments and stakeholders working together to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production and elevate the dialogue around fossil fuel phaseouts in the negotiations. The alliance represents a step forward for fundamental change, rather than inadequate half-measures.
While Costa Rica remains co-chair of BOGA, Chaves has refused to rule out natural gas exploration, although he said he did not think drilling for oil would have long-term prospects. Since assuming office, Minister of the Environment Franz Tattenbach, has reaffirmed Chaves’ position.
"Natural gas could be a bit interesting as a transition fuel, but it needs to be studied,” said Tattenbach in an interview with La República.
Shaking Up MINAE
On June 30, Chaves presented the proposed law project, Strengthening the Competencies of the Ministry of Environment and Energy
The law proposal makes several significant structural changes, including eliminating the Regional Council of Conservation Areas (CORAC), the board of directors of the National Parks, and the Plenary Commission of the Environmental Technical Secretariat. The law would reform the administrative structure of San Lucas Island National Park and the National Recreation Park of the Beaches of Manuel Antonio, the country’s newest park. It would also repeal Law 10173, which pertains to Marino Ballena National Park in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone.
"What we intend with this project is to implement a reengineering of the organizational structure of MINAE in such a way that the guiding powers of the Ministry are recomposed and strengthened,", said Tattenbach.
The proposed restructuring of MINAE has been criticized on a number of different fronts, including the fact that it would exclude institutions, communities, indigenous people and universities from the environmental decision-making process.
What’s more, Tattenbach has announced significant cutbacks to MINAE for 2023, including slashing the budget of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) by ₡1,129 million ($1.8 million). Notably, there is $0 allocated for Marino Ballena National Park. Tattenbach is also pushing ahead with a plan for concession services within the national parks.
"The abandonment of this government's investment in environmental protection is EVIDENT," tweeted Jonathan Acuña Soto, who leads the Frente Amplio party’s delegation in the National Assembly.
Trawling on the Table
More recently, the National Assembly approved a bill that would permit trawling but it was vetoed by President Alvarado. The veto was upheld by the Assembly.
Tattenbach has remained consistent with Chaves’ noncommittal stance on trawling during the campaign, emphasizing the importance of continued studies.
“We are not studying trawling with traditional techniques. When I referred to new studies, it was about new fishing gear, which could be harmless,” said Tattenbach.
The Escazú Agreement, a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations, has emerged as an important issue in recent years. The treaty promotes public access to information, citizen participation in environmental governance and 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 in 2018, the Assembly has failed to ratify it.
Chaves was an outspoken opponent of the agreement during the election season and his Administration has maintained his hard line. In an interview with El Financiero, Tattenbach said he believes the Escazu Agreement would not contribute anything to a country like Costa Rica, which already has good protections for human rights and the environment, as well as a process in place for validating the environmental impacts of the project. Tattenbach reiterated the private sector’s concerns and believed that the agreement could be ultimately “more detrimental to the economy.”
An Unknown in Egypt COP27
While Costa Rica appears to be headed in the wrong direction on many domestic and regional issues, it remains to be seen how it will act at COP27. Early indications are that Costa Rica will work to protect its reputation on the international stage. In his first trip abroad to the World Economic Forum, Chaves backed Costa Rica’s environmental commitments and noted problems of excessive pollution in the rivers, lack of recycling, and failure to embrace the principles of the circular economy.
“Costa Rica is a country that will not back down on its commitments and its desire to achieve carbon neutrality,” said Chaves
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this September, Minister of Foreign Affairs Arnoldo André-Tinoco pointed to Costa Rica’s climate vulnerability:
"The climate crisis and biodiversity loss are hitting us mercilessly and without distinction. In Pakistan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, we are experiencing it first-hand today. Yet it is the most vulnerable countries who are stepping up our efforts, creating large areas of protection and conservation and increasing our adaptation and mitigation, while the biggest carbon emitters and those responsible for climate catastrophes remain unaccountable.”
During the Bonn intersessional negotiations in June, Costa Rica kept a fairly low profile in the lead-up to COP27. Costa Rica coordinates with the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) that includes Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. AILAC has undergone significant political upheaval with the new governments of Gustavo Petro, Gabriel Boric, and Xiomara Castro in addition to the Chaves Administration. While Costa Rica is unlikely to create major waves heading into COP27, the new administration’s positions on the electric train, trawling, natural gas exploration and the Escazu Agreement, as well as its plan to restructure MINAE, could undermine the country’s reputation abroad.