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Costa Rica's environment minister says region must preserve its forests to tackle climate change
Central America, Belize

Costa Rica's environment minister says region must preserve its forests to tackle climate change

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica's Minister of Environment and Energy, says Central American countries can find the balance between tackling climate change and generating economic growth.

Commercial and industrial vehicle fleets burn large volumes of fossil fuels, making them responsible for considerable amounts of climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.  That is why several cities, business and organizations attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September committed to supporting the expansion of electric vehicles.

Many countries have pledged to replace diesel engines with battery-powered or zero-emission transport, but Central America appears to be behind on that transition. Regional experts say the use of renewable energy for electricity generation should be prioritized, perhaps even before getting on the clean-transportation bandwagon. Costa Rica is currently the only country in the region that is using renewable sources to generate almost all of its electricity.

“For Central America there are more important issues," said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica's Minister of Environment and Energy. "One is why are we promoting electric transportation when the electricity is mainly generated with fossil fuels. It doesn’t make much sense."

Most Central American countries still have a lot of work to do to move towards a 100-percent renewable electricity agenda, he added.

"That is the first and number one priority. Again, it doesn’t make much sense to go from fossil fuel cars to electric cars if the electricity is being generated mainly with fossil fuels. So, that is an issue that Central America needs to address.”

Minister Rodriguez said that Central America must also address the big issue of deforestation and forest degradation if the region wants to slash its CO2 emissions and meet its carbon-reduction targets.

“The most important element in terms of CO2 emissions in Central America comes from deforestation, not from cars or electricity," Rodriguez said. "In the last 20 years, Central America has lost probably 25 percent of the forests. This is very bad news. It is not just bad for nature, but it is bad for climate change, it is bad for people who live or farmers in the communities.

"Losing the forest for Central America is like losing the money we have in the bank," he continued. "We are losing forests even in protected areas. And now in Central America we have just five big forested areas left; in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. These are just the last patches of forest we have in Central America. We need to work on that. We need to stop deforestation. The Central American countries will never, ever achieve their climate targets if we still have the same level of deforestation. In the northern part of Central America most of the deforestation is related to cattle ranching; cattle ranching is related to drug trafficking and violence and security. It is a very complex issue. But if we want to be serious in terms of climate mitigation and as well for adaptation, we won’t be able to adapt our economies and our people if we lose the money in the bank."

Costa Rica has managed to grow its economy while also tackling climate change, something many countries are striving to achieve, said Minister Rodriguez, who points to sustainable tourism as one approach that is already helping Costa Rica and Belize. 

“Costa Rica stopped deforestation, doubled the size of the forest while our economy tripled in size. So, there’s growth," Rodriguez said. "Protecting nature is not a barrier for growth, it is not a burden for the economy, and as a matter of fact, protecting nature can be a way to generate economic growth."

In Belize, for example, tourists want to see the beautiful coral reef or go to the Blue Hole in San Pedro and then they want to go the forest and to see the Mayan ruins and ancient cities, said Rodriguez.

"The whole package is a green package; a nature based package," he noted.

This story was supported by the 2018 Climate Change Media Partnership, a collaboration between Internews’  Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Foundation.