Former president of Costa Rica talks climate change, public policy during Northeastern campus visit

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern and Carlos Andrés Alvarado Quesad, the 48th president of Costa Rica.
Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern and Carlos Andrés Alvarado Quesada, the 48th president of Costa Rica. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the former president of Costa Rica, is widely admired as a world leader in the global effort to tackle climate change. 

Quesada, who is Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at Tufts’ Fletcher School, concluded his term as president of the Central American country this past May after four years in office. During that time, Costa Rica won the Earthshot Prize—the only country to be awarded the global prize meant to recognize companies and individuals who’ve devised innovative climate solutions.

During a visit to Northeastern’s Boston campus hosted by the School for Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Quesada sat down with News@Northeastern to talk about climate change, both in the context of Latin American cooperation and collaboration, and across the rest of the planet. Professor Maria Ivanova, director of the School for Public Policy and Urban Affairs, helped to spearhead the former president’s visit. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Costa Rica, under your leadership, has really shot ahead of many other nations in combating climate change. Are your neighbors keeping up? What does regional collaboration and cooperation on the issue of climate change currently look like in Latin America?

In Latin America, the effort to combat climate change is uneven—I will qualify it like that. While we were in office from 2018 until May of this year, our goal was to be at the forefront of the struggle against climate change, the struggle against the environmental catastrophe that we are experiencing. Our take was to lead by example to try to demonstrate that some of the myths around the discussion of climate change are just that: they’re myths. 

For example, you hear a lot of discussion around the so-called antagonism between growth, well-being and sustainability. In 2019, we launched one of the first decarbonization plans that followed the Paris Agreement in 2015, and even though we were one of the first, it was in 2019 that we launched it, so you can see how the rest of the world is slacking. But in Costa Rica, we launched the program in 2019, and it’s a roadmap of how to decarbonize the economy by 2050, making it net zero and aiming to be carbon negative.

Then the discussion came out that, well, you can decarbonize your economy, but your country will be poorer. So we commissioned a study by the RAND Corporation, University of Costa Rica and the Inter-American Development Bank. In 2021, they came out with the results in which, actually, the decarbonization plans throughout the whole execution period will yield more than $50 billion in benefits to Costa Rica. So our approach is to lead by example. I say that the response in Latin America is uneven, because, still, several countries of the region [today] are exploring or exploiting for new sources of oil, even though the world in 2015 agreed to do everything necessary to reach our 1.5 degrees Celsius target. They say that this is part of a transition, but really it’s really part of the economy of the past. If Latin America doesn’t wake up, it’s going to find out it’s basing its economy, its fiscal income, its employment, its exports and imports, on the economy of the past.

Now that your term has ended, when you reflect on your achievements as president, what successes as it relates to climate change come to mind?

As part of our environmental strategy, besides our decarbonization plan, what was important to us relates to conservation and sustainability. In 2019, when the pre-COP [United Nations Climate Change “Conference of the Parties”] was held in Costa Rica, back then, it was a different moment. The U.S. had pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and Brazil gave up on organizing the COP. So Costa Rica, Chile and Spain ended up organizing as promptly as possible the pre-COP and the COP that was ultimately held in Spain. 

At that moment, science started pointing out that to address climate change and the rapid biodiversity loss, it was necessary to protect at least 30% of the world’s ecosystems—all of the land and the oceans. By now, only about 15% is protected, and less than 9% of the oceans are protected. Back then, with France and the U.K., Costa Rica launched the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, aiming to protect 30% of the ecosystems, both continental and the ocean, by 2013. It was launched in 2019 with only a handful of countries, with many saying it was going to be impossible; they said it was too ambitious. But now, in 2022, not only did Costa Rica protect 30% of its own ocean—we went from less than 3% of ocean protection to 30% of ocean protection, which Costa Rica is 92% ocean and only 8% continent—but we also brought on board Panama, Colombia and Ecuador to build a whole corridor that goes from Cocos Island to the Galapagos, of ocean protection. And now, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People has more than 100 countries participating in that commitment. It demonstrates that conservation is possible. 

Do you think the present global political environment is antithetical to the kind of international cooperation that’s needed to fight climate change? How do you see younger generations, like those studying in this very university, making a difference?

There is the context of both political polarization—there’s huge political polarization within many countries. It’s not a moment that’s so easy to build coalitions or agreements between governments and different parties. And also, in some cases, populism is at the center of these situations. That’s not helping to advance policies of sustainability or policies addressing climate change, because they end up being talked about in that polarized environment.  

The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It ended because we found better ways of doing things. The oil is going to be there, but we need to keep it underground—not in the atmosphere. It’s urgent that Latin America, and the rest of the world, moves into that direction, and yes, I place my faith in young people demanding their governments and their private sectors to help us make that move. Because it’s their world—this one that is under threat. 

Northeastern is a finalist in the competition to build a Climate Center on Governors Island. The goal is to create a climate-focused research and education hub on the 172-acre island in partnership with New York City. Based on your vast experience on these issues, what advice do you have for the university as it pursues this important project?

First, I want to congratulate the university on that achievement. Second, I think it’s a great opportunity to actually host climate innovative technologies on a major landmark. 

For example, you can propose a fully decarbonized island to show what the future should look like, not only in terms of sustainability, but in terms of inclusion and democracy. 

Also, having a vision with a master plan so that people can reference Governors Island as an example of where the world should be headed, will be key. That’s what I think Northeastern can accomplish with this project, and it’s inspiring. 

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