Words by Katie Puckett
“What we’re trying to do at the individual country level is to transform the lofty net-zero emissions goal into specific actions”
Your cost-benefit analysis of Costa Rica’s decarbonization plan found that the transformation could make it US$41 billion better off by 2050, even if other countries do nothing. The fact that climate change requires a globally coordinated response has been a massive stumbling block so far — could your approach provide the missing piece of the puzzle, to persuade national governments to take action?
That is exactly what we are trying to achieve. Of course we need to stop the climate crisis, and the global leaders have already agreed that we need to hold warming to 1.5-2°C and to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. The problem we’re trying to address is that in most countries it’s typically the ministry of the environment, and within that, the director of climate change, who is in charge of the long-term strategy. But it’s the private sector and the line ministries — in transport, in agriculture, in electricity — that are going to have to actually implement the plan. At best, they understand that it’s important but they usually have a long list of priorities that they put above it.
So what we’re trying to do at the individual country level is to transform the lofty net-zero emissions goal into specific actions — for instance, hectares of reforested areas, number of bus lines, share of electric vehicles. Then you can discuss how these actions help the line minister or the private sector to achieve their goals, rather than the overall goal of emission reductions. In Costa Rica, we talked with more than 50 organizations — NGOs, the private sector, government agencies — and we asked them what problems they face. So if they say congestion or pollution, we can discuss how electric vehicles or public transport or walkable neighbourhoods can reduce the cost of congestion or pollution today. You don’t even need to mention reducing emissions. At the end of the day, each sector understands their part of the plan and they like it for their own reasons: because it’s economic development, it’s post-Covid recovery, it’s reducing congestion, it’s improving agricultural yields.
Was that why you did this piece of work, to build support for the national decarbonization plan?
Yes, totally. The government of Costa Rica has a very ambitious approach to climate change, and the national decarbonization plan was issued in 2019. They needed to help line ministries and citizens make sense of it. That was before Covid — but of course now it is even more important in all countries that if you want to make any climate action politically realistic, you definitely need to emphasize the social and economic benefits. Which means that you need to ensure that the plan has social and economic benefits in the first place.
How much of your analysis could be applied to other countries?
That’s really the key. Costa Rica has 5 million inhabitants and is responsible for virtually 0% of global emissions, but I believe that this study is globally relevant because it shows what a sustainable post-Covid recovery means in practice. A plan to get to net-zero emissions is mystical for a lot of people, but this makes it very simple: it’s public transport, it’s electric vehicles, it’s improving yields in agriculture so that you have room for reforestation — that’s really most of what needs to happen to get to net zero in most countries around the world.
It’s not a sacrifice that you’re asking people to make today for the benefit of 2050. If you transform that goal into specific sectoral things then you discover that it’s about improving the lives of people, it’s about improving the business environment, it’s about just making things better. It’s better to have a public transport system that works rather than spending three hours in traffic every day, it’s better to have clean air than contaminated air, it’s better to have high yields than low yields in agriculture. That general approach can be used in all the countries in the world.
We also quantified some specific things. For example, people know that congestion and air pollution are big problems, yet it’s very rare that sustainable mobility studies quantify the costs that the current system puts on people, in terms of their time, or by killing them in accidents, and the health and economic impact of polluting the air. Here we demonstrate that there is data available to compare good and bad transport systems. A lot of people just look at the costs of sustainability, they don’t look at the benefits. We’re not saying there’s no cost, we’re just saying that the benefits are more than twice the costs.
"A lot of people just look at the costs of sustainability, they don’t look at the benefits. We’re not saying there’s no cost, we’re just saying that the benefits are more than twice the costs"