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Jul 10, 2014

Beyond the Frame: Developing a Holistic Picture of Costa Rica’s Environmental Performance

Kevin Morris / CC / Flickr

Ecotourism has the power to bear significant positive impact on a local ecosystem, economy and community. Countries like Belize, Ghana and Kenya have, in recent years, experienced various levels of ecologic revival brought by the establishment of ecotourism destinations and the influx of visitors drawn to their absorbing landscapes. No country has perhaps had as much ecotourism attention as Costa Rica, widely hailed as the poster child of an industry that is meant to incentivize conservation as a means of sustainable profitability.

Yet where ecotourism falls short, is in its capacity to afford visitors a full notion of the realities facing a particular region. Costa Rica’s recent drop in rank in the 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), illuminates several unsightly issues that directly conflict with its otherwise attractive image upon which the country’s ecotourism sector is founded. Over the past several decades, Costa Rica has made incremental gains in specific areas of environmental protection, namely reforestation, access to drinking water and water sanitation. Yet it continues to lag in other, less visible areas, explicitly wastewater treatment and climate change. Until this year, Costa Rica had consistently ranked in the EPI’s top tier, ranking 3 out of 163 countries in 2010 and 5 out of 132 countries in 2012 until 2014. In the latest edition of the EPI, Costa Rica received its lowest ranking yet, at 54 out of 178.

The decline in Costa Rica’s rank drew concern from its Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), which responded to the EPI’s findings. Costa Rica has long been perceived as one of the “greenest” (and recently “happiest”) countries in Central America if not the world, and a paragon of reforestation efforts - doubling its forest cover in less than 20 years. One reason for Costa Rica’s decline in performance in the 2014 EPI is due to the inclusion of a new indicator on wastewater treatment, an indication of the EPI’s emphasis on “blue” resources in addition to “green” resources. 

In Focus


This year the 2014 EPI aimed to better assess how countries perform in terms of how much industrial, municipal or household waste effluent is treated prior to release into freshwater and marine ecosystems. Closer analysis of the 2014 results reveals that Costa Rica was one of the worst performers in the water resources indicator, with a score of 0.9 out of 100, ranking 125 out of 178 countries scored. As of 2007, a mere 3 percent of all urban wastewater collected by sewage systems is treated before being discharged into rivers and receiving bodies of water. Releasing untreated sewage into waterways presents serious human health risks associated with waterborne pathogens in addition to degrading aquatic ecosystems, often upon which local fishing industry depends.

Costa Rica also falls short in another category: climate change. The EPI’s climate change indicator assesses mitigation actions relative to a country’s level of economic development. For middle-income countries such as Costa Rica, the primary measure for the climate change indicator is the rate at which the country’s carbon intensity growth has slowed over time. In 2014, Costa Rica scored 38.46 out of 100, ranking 98 out of 129 countries scored on that indicator. “The country has experienced an almost 117 percent increase in overall carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2010,” said Laura Johnson, a co-author of the EPI report.

Reducing carbon emissions is an area critical to the country’s goal of attaining carbon-neutrality by 2021. The goal was originally set in 2007 by then-President Óscar Arias’s administration, and the country has since experienced several leadership transitions. The strategy to achieve carbon neutrality hinges in large part upon the country’s ability to grow and reforest areas of land set aside as carbon sinks – an “insurance policy” to buffer growing fossil fuel consumption. Costa Rica is expected to experience a net gain of 5.8 million tons of emissions in the next decade, which it will need to offset or reduce in the interim. Costa Rica’s National Climate Change Strategy includes the reduction of emissions at their source, but does not offer specific reduction goals or metrics. There seems to be several plans that aim for reduction in emissions related to transportation, and as the source of 46 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, there is significant progress to be made. While Costa Rica claims to have met its overall goal by as much as 80 percent, official reports have yet to be released and it remains to be announced whether the recently elected President supports the goal as part of the national agenda.

Several local leaders have responded directly to the country’s drop in rank, calling for a more holistic approach to the country’s environmental agenda, including, Bernardo Aguilar, Executive Director of Fundación Neotrópica. For Aguilar, “The new position of Costa Rica in the Environmental Performance Index of Yale University shows [Costa Rica’s] environmental challenges and should invite [Costa Ricans] to reflect on a comprehensive approach that includes social environmentalism.”

The Bigger Picture


The EPI is designed to provide a ranking that assesses how countries perform on high-priority environmental issues, illuminating particular areas of concern as they are identified. Costa Rica’s concern and investigation into its drop in rank demonstrates both the utility of environmental data and the prioritization Costa Rica places on improving its environmental integrity. When asked what needs to be done to improve Costa Rica’s environmental performance, Minister of Environment and Energy, René Castro offered that, “[Costa Rica] needs to invest in the management of fisheries, oceans, and wastewater.” In doing so, Costa Rica could continue to lead Central America in its environmental innovation and integrity, ushering in improved ecosystems, improved public infrastructure and inevitably an improvement in its future EPI standing. 

Breanna Lujan, Yale College ’14, contributed to this article. Thanks also to Monica Araya, Founder and Executive Director of Costa Rica Limpia for local insight and expertise.