Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

From Pioneer to Leader in Sustainability

SAN JOSE, Mar 20 2004 (IPS) - Costa Rica could become the world's first example of “strong” sustainable development.

 - Fabricio Van Den Broeck

- Fabricio Van Den Broeck

Academic experts categorize sustainable development as strong or weak. In a simplification, we can say that both strategies foment the creation of ongoing economic and social profits, and that the main difference is that the first imposes restrictions in the environmental area, and the other does not.

For example, strong sustainable development would require that in the exploitation of a natural forest only mature trees could be extracted, those that if they are not removed would die of old age. And with that small quantity of lumber or the money coming from its sales, factories and schools would be built.

In contrast, weak sustainability assumes that natural resources can be substituted by others and, as a result, all of the forest could be cut and all of the lumber sold at once to build factories that will produce future profits.

Norway is considered a leader in sustainable development, although in terms of the weak version. The country has a progressive tax policy and is complemented by revenues with oil taxes of around 15 dollars per 159-liter barrel.

The petroleum fund has accumulated more than 120 billion dollars and has been used particularly to finance activities aimed at replacing oil in the future and to generate the much-hoped-for perpetual income.

Norway has become an energy superpower and one of the leading exporters of electricity to Europe, because it has developed its hydroelectric potential as well. Today, Norway is a rich country that meets its national and global environmental obligations.

In contrast, other countries — rich and poor — simply raise or lower their living standards with the fluctuations of prices and the overexploitation of their surroundings. Rich countries like the United States consume much more petroleum than they produce and endanger the environmental integrity of the planet by not assuming their share of responsibility for the contamination of the Earth's atmosphere.

Equally unsustainable is the strategy of nations like Chile and Venezuela, which are fiscally dependent on copper and on petroleum, respectively. Furthermore, part of the revenues coming from Chilean copper and Venezuelan oil is used to finance military expenditures instead of saving it and looking for alternative sources for the production of perpetual income.

Could Costa Rica adopt a sustainable development model that is stronger than Norway's? Could this Central American country become the first example of strong sustainable development?

The government of Abel Pacheco has announced a sustainability strategy that is more ambitious than the Norwegian model. It says the country will not base current or future development on the extraction of non-renewable resources, such as open-pit gold mining or oil exploitation.

It is logical to assume that the Costa Ricans will not renounce the aspiration for perpetual returns and that these would be created through an alternative strategy.

In other words, if Costa Rica were to give up gold revenues, it could replace them with a world-class ecotourism industry in order to purchase vaccines and build schools. And if it decides not to drill for oil, it could foment the use of efficient modes of transportation, like electric urban trains and the use of hydrogen and biomass as fuels. Otherwise, Costa Rican policy would be a double standard: I don't use my petroleum, but I do import from others this fuel that is harmful and pollutes.

Strong sustainability in Costa Rica is viable. The country has the opportunity to produce abundant and sustainable energy from renewable sources for domestic consumption and for export.

With a clear political decision to use renewable resources, combined with an abundance of resources like water, wind and sun, and with an export effort headed by the state-run electric company ICE, Costa Rica could sell energy worth some 200 million dollars a year.

Costa Rica could also go from being a pioneer in the promotion of global environmental services to being the leader. For example, it could continue to sell carbon dioxide credits, but should be preparing for a new scale of business beginning in January 2005 for the European market and for the eventual implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets limits for emissions of greenhouse gases.

In the ecotourism arena, Costa Rica should promote certification of sustainability with international standards and improve its language and communications capabilities in its marketing efforts.

This is a matter of moving from being pioneers to becoming the leader, to take care of the “green” niches that set Costa Rica apart and which attract visitors and investors capable of paying for and recognizing these attributes.

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