The most valuable resource at the world economic Forum at Davos is time. No one has enough of it, so everyone makes compromises to make the most of it. President Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica is no exception. As we near the 10-minute point of our interview at his hotel in the Swiss ski resort, his press officer begins to wrap things up. The Costa Rican leader is expected at the conference center, a mile and a half away, in 15 minutes, she says. So the interview continues in the presidential SUV through the icy, snow-packed streets. Even TIME has to make the most of time.
If Alvarado Quesada gets his way, such vehicles will become a rare sight in his own country. In February, his government will pledge to abolish entirely the use of fossil fuels in Costa Rica, making it the world’s first “carbon zero” country. Already, much of its energy supply comes from hydro and geothermal power; he wants to reform transportation so electric vehicles are the norm on Costa Rica’s roads. He’s at the annual gathering of the world’s political and economic elite to make the case that developing countries can lead the world in tackling climate change. “Our ambition is not only to do this on our own,” he says. “We want others to follow.”
With so many of the worlds’s top-tier leaders skipping Davos this year, developing countries had a rare opportunity. President Donald Trump was dealing with a government shutdown, while British Prime Minister Theresa May tried to seal parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal. And still reeling from the Gilets Jaunes protests in France, President Emmanuel Macron was in no mood to be seen rubbing shoulders with the 1%.
Instead, figures like President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia made their debuts as the star attractions at Davos. The Brazilian populist underwhelmed with a brusque seven-minute speech to the conference center, delivered with all the passion of a hostage reading out his captors’ list of demands. The reform-minded Ethiopian leader, however, impressed with a livelier address emphasizing his country’s new openness to global values and foreign investment.
Alvarado Quesada, also attending Davos for the first time after becoming President in May 2018, did not give an address. But he spoke on a panel alongside counterparts from Ecuador and Colombia about the “human-centered future” of Latin America. “I think it was very important to show Latin America is committed not only to economic and human development, but also to the international community,” he says. “To support multilateralism, especially in these times.”
A former novelist, the 39-year-old is something of a rarity in the region: a left-of-center champion of social values whose support for same-sex marriage helped win him the presidency. His country too is a beacon of relative economic and political stability in a region known for high poverty and corruption. The nation of 5 million has seen steady growth for a quarter-century and has one of the lowest poverty rates in Latin America. Its leaders are mostly centrist, and the threat of military involvement in government is moot: Costa Rica scrapped its armed forces in 1948. “We believe in strong human rights, strong institutions, free press, gender equality,” Alvarado Quesada says. “The best way to lead is by example. To show what’s possible and what’s good.”
Alvarado Quesada and I spoke on Jan. 24, the day after the Trump Administration recognized the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s President, in a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Costa Rica is largely shielded from the wave of new migrants fleeing Venezuela’s economic collapse by the Darien Gap, the roadless barrier separating Central from South America. But Alvarado Quesada hopes Maduro will accept the international community’s demand for transparent elections as a way to solve the standoff. “I hope that will happen,” he says, “because what’s the alternative? The other options are not so good, for Venezuela or for anyone else.”
Alvarado Quesada also pointed delegates to his country’s extraordinary record of reversing deforestation. In the mid–20th century, Costa Rica’s forest cover dropped from 70% to just 20%. But reforms in the 1990s, in which the government protected existing rain forests and paid landowners to allow regions to regenerate, catalyzed a resurgence in natural growth. Today the country is more than 50% forested again. “People at the time said it was impossible,” he says. “But we want to show that it’s not only possible but that sustainability and growth can go hand in hand.”
Now Costa Rica wants to do the impossible again and remove carbon emissions completely from its environmental balance sheet. The deadline is 2050, in accordance with the principles of the Paris Agreement. Alvarado Quesada shared with TIME a detailed, ambitious plan for how to get there due to be published on Feb. 24, from carbon pricing to reforms in transportation, industry, agriculture and waste management. I ask how he plans to persuade Costa Ricans to accept the sacrifices that his plan demands. “One part of it is to inspire people,” Alvarado Quesada replies. “We have to convince people not just to save the planet but to save ourselves.” He complains that at gatherings like Davos, there is often a perception that growth and sustainability are incompatible. “This is a false argument,” he says. “Sustainability triggers new innovations, new developments, new jobs. It’s our job to show examples that this is possible.”
The presidential SUV has now arrived at the special VIP entrance to the Davos conference center. It loops through a snowy field and descends into a concrete bunker, where armed guards wave us through. As one of a cohort of young world leaders in their 30s and 40s, which includes New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, France’s Macron and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, Alvarado Quesada believes there’s a generational shift in how governments are addressing environmental responsibility. “We are going to live longer in this world and see the most devastating effects of climate change,” he says. “And when we grow old, people are going to ask us–did you do enough about it? So we need to start answering that question today, now.” He senses in his own younger constituents an eagerness to take action, pointing for example to a successful movement to jettison single-use plastics. “I believe that the way [young people] look at these things is different.”
The car pulls up to an entrance, where the presidential entourage exits and walks directly onto the ground floor of the conference center. Heads turn and cameras flash as we walk in. Alvarado Quesada may not be in the top tier of global leaders. But he’s willing to walk the walk–and urge his fellow world leaders that we’re running out of time.
This appears in the February 18, 2019 issue of TIME.
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