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Jul 08, 2011

Lessons from Costa Rica in environmental sustainability

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Cape Town|Africa|Conservation International|Resources|Road|System|Water|Africa|Costa Rica|South Africa|Ecosystem Services|Energy|Environmental Services|Services|Environmental|Carlos Manuel Rodriguez|Water
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The earth’s population spends more money on killing the planet than saving it, according to Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, VP for conservation policy at Conservation International.

Rodriguez, also formerly Costa Rica’s Minster of Environment and Energy, was speaking in Cape Town last week at the Cambridge Resilience Forum about how Costa Rica has been one of the most successful countries in the world in working towards a low-carbon economy using a system known as payment for ecosystem services (PES).

Rodriguez was a pioneer in Costa Rica in the development and implementation of this system, where Costa Ricans are paid for any carbon sequestration, water and biodiversity ‘services’ they provide.

“[Costa Ricans] have learned that we are unable to succeed in achieving our standards, targets and goals of social development and economic development without investing heavily in wisely using our natural resources and ecosystem,” he said.

Costa Rica is a biodiversity ‘hot spot’ where, in 1940, 75% of the country was covered in forests. This dropped to only 21% in 1987 as the financial incentives of the time were geared to changing unproductive landscapes into productive landscapes. Forests were mostly considered unproductive, resulting in deforestation. In 1991, the Costa Rican government realised that the incentives being paid were essentially bad investments and needed to be reconsidered.

In the early 1990s, Costa Rica subsequently analysed the benefits from healthy ecosystems. The analysis resulted in a policy which identified that owners of forests were supplying environmental services to the country in the form of carbon sequestration and so could be paid for those services. The intention was that this would encourage further reforestation by other landowners.

Environmental Services

Vehicles such as carbon taxes were implemented, which then created the income that could be paid to the providers of the environmental services.

The PES system was dramatically successful and payment for carbon sequestration services resulted in the restoration of a significant number of forests and, by 2005, the forest-covered area of the country increased to 52%. PES meant it had become profitable for landowners to reforest.

The system had other benefits which were not initially anticipated. Of the people that received payment for environmental services, 30% were considered extremely poor, said Rodriguez. Unwittingly, the Costa Rican government had designed a market instrument for forest conservation that also had a significant human benefit as a by-product. Rodriguez was able to show examples where communities had used PES funds to build homes and schools and, in doing so, uplifted themselves.

In addition to payment for carbon sequestration, the PES system now also pays for water and biodiversity services. He said that payment for water services “is an area where I see a great opportunity for South Africa”.

Commenting on South Africa’s road towards environmental sustainability, he noted other parallels with Costa Rica. “When I travel around rural South Africa, I see you have a major challenge in restoration, not just in conservation. I believe that the dimension and scale of the restoration are even bigger and more complex.”

Costa Rica should be an example for South Africa as it has shown that environmental sustainability and social development can go hand in hand. Where it was once the poorest country in the western hemisphere, it now ranks top of the ‘Happy Planet Index’, which measures the wellbeing of people in the nations of the world while taking into account their environmental impact. Costa Rica aims to be fully carbon neutral by 2021.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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