Winds of change - Issue 149 - Magazine | Monocle

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Carlos Alvarado Quesada

Billed as the final chance to save the planet, the latest UN Climate Change Conference – Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland – was a momentous event. The aim of this gathering of world leaders, activists and corporations was to extract pledges that are aimed at countries limiting global warming to 1.5c above pre-industrial levels. At the host venue, the Scottish Event Campus, the sense of urgency was palpable, as was the defiance among smaller nations  – the ones that are often left paying the price for larger countries’ climate inaction. 

“If the world was a private company and its leaders ceos of corporations, we would all be fired and out of business.” These were the words of Costa Rica’s president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, as he addressed the plenary room packed with his counterparts. 

The Central American nation might have a population of a little more than five million people but it has emerged as a leading influencer in the fight against climate change. Over a quarter of its territory is rainforest protected from exploitation and, together with its oceans, it holds 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. 

“If the world was a private company and its leaders CEOs of corporations, we would all be fired and out of business”

In 2019, Costa Rica launched an ambitious plan to decarbonise its economy, setting a goal to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a ban on gas and oil exploration. A progressive reforestation programme means that 53 per cent of its territory is green, while more than 22 per cent of Costa Rica’s entire coffee production is low-carbon and sustainable. 

At the summit, Costa Rica partnered with Denmark to launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, intended to assist governments in phasing out oil and gas production. monocle caught up with President Alvarado at Cop26, just after he’d signed a landmark agreement on ocean conservation with his Central American neighbours. 


Verdant Costa Rican landscape

What needed to be achieved at Cop26? 
The first target was intangible: the necessity for action. We talk a lot about the 1.5c, and we talk about goals of finance. But I believe that people around the world now understand a little bit more the risk of losing the planet. So if we manage to raise awareness of why this is so urgent and that becomes a trigger in order to push leaders around the world – such as myself – to act, then that’s success. 

What is standing in the way of an effective multilateral climate plan? For example, the Cop26 deforestation announcement was met with widespread approval but it’s non-binding. How do we make these actions binding?
There are many national constraints; we’re talking about multilateral agreements with hundreds of countries. We set goals together but after that there’s the internal politics of how each country implements them. Many of these policies face resistance because there’s always resistance to change. I believe that change is going to happen but there’s a lack of time to achieve that. One thing that I’m worried about is that I perceive that, in a couple of months, we’ll start seeing more and more of a game of pointing fingers at those who do not comply with what’s necessary. I’ve started to see that already in the developing world. Many of us are suffering the consequences of climate change – we are experiencing extreme weather, but we do not use as many fossil fuels. So if we do not start seeing changes or changing behaviours, particularly in the countries that need to change their behaviours, I foresee that there’s going to be a lot more finger-pointing at those who are not delivering.

In your speech to other world leaders, you mentioned precisely that, saying that the developed world needs to pull their act together. Aren’t we at that finger-pointing stage already?
We’re about to get to that point. We’ve been talking a lot with the island states, particularly with the Caribbean islands but also with the Seychelles and Marshall Islands. In their case, the situation is really critical. They’re currently basically pledging for their existence and the right to exist. I truly believe that’s going to change the way in which diplomacy works. And it might even change the narrative of how we try to persuade others – if we can raise awareness of how people have been affected around the world, all because of the great polluters that are not changing their behaviour.


Cop26’s ‘action hub’


Alvarado in the spotlight

Costa Rica has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, the same year as the UK and USA. But isn’t the truth that by 2050, it’ll be too late?
Well, yes, but in our case, we created that goal in 2019; we were the first country to have a decarbonisation plan. And the plan is to fully decarbonise our economy, which means completely abolishing the use of fossil fuels. Our contribution is not as important in terms of the quantity but the Costa Rican contribution is important in terms of the example, because we have demonstrated that you can reverse deforestation. We have demonstrated that a medium developing country in Central America can be 99.5 per cent clean and renewable, and still produce electricity. We have demonstrated that you can expand your conservation areas in the oceans without necessarily being a developed country with lots of resources. So with those examples, and with the nama coffee producers [Costa Rica’s governmental programme to reduce coffee production’s carbon footprint and water use] – all that shows what is possible. Our contribution is not necessarily in the quantities; it is in providing examples that show how change is possible.

You just mentioned Costa Rica setting an example when it comes to ocean conservation. You’ve recently signed a Clean Seas Pledge. Who was involved and how was it negotiated?
Costa Rica launched this pledge a couple of years ago with both France and the UK: The High Ambition Coalition for Earth and People. The goal is to protect 30 per cent of the territory of each country, both in land and in oceans as well. Just a couple of hours ago, here at Cop26, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica committed to protect a joint area, to create a large conservation area that brings together Cocos Island in Costa Rica, Galápagos in Ecuador and very important areas of Panama and Colombia. This is a concrete example of how you can create a very large, protected area that’s going to make a difference. 

Costa Rica is a leader in conservation and climate activism, not only in Latin America but the world. But isn’t it easier to enact climate policy in a small monocultural democracy than a large, multicultural one like, say, the US or UK, with very divided electorates?
No, we are a very diverse country. We have a very polarised debate, similar to what happens in other nations. But the fact that we have a polarised debate and have still managed to do things – that’s an example of what is possible. I will also challenge the idea that we are “small”. We are the largest exporter of pineapple worldwide and 92 per cent of our territory is ocean. Our scale is not as small as it’s been pictured. Change is a matter of will; it is not a matter of scale. If that argument were to be true, then you would say to Gandhi, Mandela or Martin Luther King that change is not possible because your cause is too big. But I believe that change is possible. They managed by being individuals who had the moral courage to change the face of a nation and the world. I believe that courageous and moral leadership is what’s required to make change actually happen. 

The CV

Graduates with a master’s in political science
Becomes communications director for presidential campaign of Luis Guillermo Solís 
Named minister of human development and social inclusion, then becomes minister of labour two years later
Elected president at the age of 38

Images: Getty Images

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