2 May 2018

Costa Rica’s ‘sustainable development’

Lucas writes:*

Costa Rica is seen in public discourse as a sustainable development success story. It is a popular destination of ecotourism and has adopted admirable sustainability targets such as carbon neutrality by 2021. It is seen as the prime example to disprove the assumption that economic growth or development come paired with an increase in environmental damage.

However, it appears that this may remain the case even in Costa Rica. The country is mostly uses power generated from hydroelectric dams, which is considered as cleaner than coal or oil. Yet, it has been raised that in a tropical setting such as Costa Rica’s these hydroelectric dams might emit a considerable amount of methane. This is due to the decay of vegetation in the reservoir, leaking methane and thus emitting comparable amounts to those of a coal-plantThese methane emission are not considered in Costa Rica’s calculations and neither is air travel to the country.

This is problematic as the country is planning to move away from its remaining non-renewable power-generating sources. This may result in an increase in GHG emissions to keep up with energy demands. Further, seeing as it is highly dependent on tourism, air travel will remain. Thus, Costa Rica might after all also suffer from an increase in environmental damage due to its growth and development.

On the development side, Costa Rica has a good record. With high levels of press freedom, literacy rates, quality of life, and high income per capita it stands out within its region. Due to its absence of an army many have attributed their capacity to redirect funds to social welfare spending as the key to these developments. However, serious issues are found upon further reading.

It appears that whilst primary education enrollment rates are very high, those of secondary education (and especially secondary education completion) are mostly reserved for the wealthiest 20% of Costa Ricans. The main reason for which that the rest of Costa Ricans do not complete their secondary education is due to a lack of resources. Whilst there is a programme intended to provide them with the necessary resources to complete it, a mere 8% of those at the poorer 20% of society receive it. This is important to consider as only 35% of its workforce has completed secondary education. Thereby Costa Rica ranks lower than the OECD average for a secondary school-educated workforce. This puts into question its development of human capital.

Whilst further issues are found in its health care system and social protection, Costa Rica remains an exception in Central America for both development and sustainability.

Bottom line: Costa Rica’s story of growth and development without environmental damage should be weighed with a ton of salt.

* Please help my growth and development economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)

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