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How Costa Rica is Going Green

Last Updated: May 02, 2012

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 - Costa Rica

In a country that pioneered the concept of ecotourism in Latin America, Costa Rica’s green reputation is well deserved. Nearly 30% of the country has been designated as national park or reserve; almost 95% of the nation’s energy needs come from local renewable resources; and the government has pledged to become a carbon neutral country by 2021. In addition to major policies, Costa Ricans take steps everyday to preserve their environment – starting in their own backyards. 

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the government power monopoly, provides service on a sliding scale – the less energy you consume, the lower your rate per-kilowatt hour. This system provides financial incentive to reduce consumption, and Costa Ricans have developed efficient ways to do this, from on-demand showerheads to disconnecting devices when not in use. In 2008, ICE began a campaign to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). A substitution of just 750,000 CFLs would result in a total reduction of 30 MW, or $34,000 per year, in electricity costs. To further this goal, ICE continues to offer customers free and reduced-cost CFL bulbs – just look for the “ENERGICE” sign at local hardware stores. 

Local businesses have also joined the movement, and many make efforts to be environmentally friendly. Small and large companies alike make donations to local conservation projects – a key component to Costa Rica’s vast web of private reserves and wildlife refuges. Many establishments, especially in the tourism industry, offset their entire carbon footprint. In fact, Nature Air, one of the country’s two national airlines, became the world’s first certified carbon neutral airline.

In an attempt to go entirely carbon neutral by 2021, the country initiated a massive reforestation program to help offset emissions. Millions of trees have been planted every year in the hopes that they will absorb enough carbon dioxide to cancel out toxic greenhouse gases. Costa Rica is an example of how environmentally friendly polices and economic growth can work hand-in-hand. Tourism is the nation’s #1 industry; every year almost two million visitors explore the incredible lands protected by environmental law. But Costa Rica’s eco-policies don’t end with tourism; in the 1990’s, the nation was the first in the world to combine water, energy, mines, and water under one ministry. 

Known today as MINAET (the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications), the ministry is in the unique position to make all environmental decisions for Costa Rica. This eliminates problems that arise from conflicting interests between overlapping ministries, and allows MINAET to examine short and long-term goals. Such flexibility has led to the development of alternative energies – hydroelectric and wind, primarily – as well as the creation of sound environmental policies. Likewise, Costa Rica has voted against actions that could damage its lands, and therefore banned oil drilling and open-pit mining, though both would reap financial benefits. 

Considering the long-term effects of protecting the local environment, MINAET also made a decision to reward landowners who preserve their lands. Those who choose to designate acreage as private reserve or wildlife refuge are compensated financially, since their land donation helps maintain watersheds and natural beauty – and in turn benefits local industries, such as fishing and tourism. The government taxes carbon emissions, providing further incentive for companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Proceeds from this tax – calculated at 3.5% of the current cost of fossil fuels – are funneled back into the environment, aiding indigenous communities in particular. 

So what can you do to help? When you travel in Costa Rica, make an effort to choose hotels, tours and transportation companies that are sustainably certified (CST) by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT). Select a carbon neutral car rental company, private shuttle or airline. Visit national parks, and book activities with local companies so that your tourism dollars will help support the communities you visit. 

As a Costa Rican resident, you can buy locally and reduce consumption. Replace all traditional light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs, and turn your water heater down, or install on-demand tanks. Shop at your local farmers’ market. Use a non-disposable water bottle, and recycle what you can. If you’re planning on buying or building a home, consider green options when it comes to materials, insulation, energy and water efficiency and landscaping. Even the smallest efforts are part of the solution.

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