Costa Rica has a proud history of protecting its natural heritage. With more than a quarter of Costa Rica’s lands designated as national parks, an energy grid that runs on 100% renewable energy most days of the year, and a national plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the country has placed environmental stewardship at the core of its national identity.
Underpinning this effort has been innovative planning and financing for conservation, including the country’s payment for ecosystem service (PES) program. For the past 20 years, under the PES model, the government has compensated farmers for conserving forests on their lands, thereby monetizing the valuable ecosystem services the forests provide, such as storing carbon, supporting biodiversity, and protecting communities against flooding or landslides.
The government committed in 2019 to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050—among the first governments in the world to make such a pledge. Usefully, Costa Rica’s plan serves as a framework to galvanize the country’s climate actions going forward and highlights natural protections prominently. It will serve as a basis for the government’s recently updated plan to the Paris Agreement on climate change—its nationally determined contribution (NDC). All parties to the agreement must update their NDCs every five years, and each update must be more ambitious than the prior one.
Costa Rica is one of several countries placing its protection of its coastal wetlands—in particular its mangroves—at the heart of its revamped NDC.
Scientists and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the “triple win” that mangrove protections provide for people, nature, and the climate, specifically in advancing the Paris Agreement’s goal to “protect, enhance and restore natural carbon sinks.” Nature-based solutions such as protecting coastal wetlands are also anticipated to feature prominently at the 26th Conference to the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Mangroves are one of only three marine ecosystems—alongside saltmarsh and seagrass—currently recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as methodologies that can make measurable contributions to help a country reduce its emissions. These “blue carbon” systems not only sequester carbon at a rate three to five times greater than that of terrestrial forests, but they also then store this carbon, often for millennia, within their submerged soils.
Furthermore, this sequestration and storage value is only one of a slew of benefits that mangroves provide for people and nature. Others include acting as storm barriers, filtering water, mitigating the effects of soil erosion, and acting as a refuge and nursery for a wealth of fish, mammal, and bird species.
Despite these benefits, nearly half of the world’s mangroves have been lost in the past 50 years—a distressing trend that deprives people and the planet of the aforementioned benefits while further contributing to climate change as the carbon locked in mangrove soils is released.
However, to sustain and grow the momentum behind coastal wetlands and nature-based solutions more broadly, parties to the Paris Agreement must lead in moving their NDCs from aspiration to action. Costa Rica’s latest NDC takes exactly this bold step, outlining specific and timebound commitments, including protection of 100% of the coastal wetlands currently recorded within the country’s National Wetland Inventory—including 21,727 hectares of mangroves—by 2025.
“Costa Rica has long recognized the benefits to people in protecting our natural environment, translating cutting-edge science into firm policy and community-driven action,” said Haydee Rodriguez, Costa Rica’s vice-minister for water and the ocean. “Protection of our blue carbon ecosystems in our next NDC can have real benefits in helping mitigate and adapt to climate change, both within Costa Rica and more broadly in supporting similarly ambitious countries.”
Pew is working in partnership with Conservation International and regional experts at the Costa Rica-based Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) to support the country’s ambition to include the carbon storage and sequestration values of mangrove protections in its net greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, should provide the basis for a further facet of the partnership: exploring how the expansion of conservation financing mechanisms such as the country’s PES scheme can support implementation.
“Understanding the precise flows of carbon and drivers of change are critical to ensuring we maximize the actual benefits,” said Miguel Cifuentes, leader of CATIE's climate action unit. “These methodological advances can not only help Costa Rica meet its own climate commitments, but help inform our understanding of precisely how nature can most impactfully help in tackling climate change.”
By working to translate science into policy and policy into action, Costa Rica is leading in recognizing the power of coastal wetlands to help mitigate climate change, and helping drive global momentum toward broader use of nature-based solutions to a challenge the world must confront urgently.
Thomas Hickey is a senior officer on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ protecting coastal wetlands and coral reefs project and Courtney Durham is an officer with Pew’s international conservation unit.