Costa Rica

Using Spatial Planning to Reduce Climate Change Threats

The Challenge

The Costa Rican government launched its first National Adaptation Plan in 2022 to improve the country's resilience to the impacts of climate change over the next five years. In creating this plan, Costa Rican decision makers realised that they are lacking data-driven evidence to inform how and where to most effectively implement measures to achieve their biodiversity and climate related goals. Threats such as the recurring severe droughts and flash floods on the Caribbean coast require more data-driven monitoring to enable effective interventions.

The Approach

​Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy participated in the UN Biodiversity Lab’s Mapping Nature for People and Planet initiative. This project harnesses spatial data to identify ways in which the country can combat climate change threats. National and global stakeholders such as the National Center for High Technology (CeNAT) PRIAS Lab used spatial data to identify areas where ecosystems can be conserved, managed and rehabilitated. These were known as Essential Life Support Areas (ELSAs).

The Benefits

The identification of ecologically significant areas marked a key step in the development of more effective policies to tackle climate change threats. These areas can provide critical benefits to the population, such as improved food and water security, more sustainable livelihoods and disaster risk reduction. The government made use of the identification process to guide the implementation of the nation’s new Payments for Environmental Services program.

The initiative contributed to SDG 13 Climate action by strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity with respect to climate-related hazards and natural disasters. Additionally, it supported SDG 15 Life on land by increasing the efficacy of efforts to prevent biodiversity loss, notably helping to enforce sustainable management of forests and enabling targeted interventions to combat desertification.


Essential Life Support Areas are locations where the biodiversity of the ecosystem conserves key variety and provides humans with critical services such as carbon storage, food, fresh water, water filtration and attributes that reduce disaster risk (such as the way mangrove trees prevent flood damage).

The context​

Healthy ecosystems are a central element of Costa Rica's resilience to many of the threats posed by climate change, including natural disasters, food shortages and water scarcity. The country's forests and trees, for example, are instrumental in preventing its cities from dangerously overheating.

The Essential Life Support Areas (ELSA) methodology

Costa Rica has made an ambitious commitment to decarbonise its economy while preserving 60% of its land for nature (National Decarbonisation Plan).

To understand how this pledge can be realised, the country sought a data-driven approach. Launched in 2020, the Mapping Nature for People and Planet initiative aims to identify where sustainable management and restoration of ecosystems will have the most significant impact. Policymakers in Costa Rica have utilised this data in developing its National Climate Adaptation Plan.

"We have achieved a true transfer of technology and knowledge, which allows us to continue implementing this tool at increasingly higher resolutions. We will promote the use of this technology at the national and international levels in order to determine the areas where the implementation of nature-based solutions can lead to greater environmental, economic and social benefits from the intervention of critical ecosystems." - Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Former Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica

ELSA maps, also known as ‘Maps of Hope,’ empowered policymakers in Costa Rica to prioritise action with respect to biodiversity conservation, water security, afforestation and biodiversity in farming, while also supporting protected area strategies and the development of early warning systems and working to adapt to climate change and reduce disaster risk.

As illustrated in the figure below, a nine-step three-phase process was followed to generate the Map of Hope and implement subsequent policy decisions.

Figure 1: The ELSA process in 9-steps.
Source: Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook / UNDP & GEF
Figure 1: The ELSA process in 9-steps.
Source: Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook / UNDP & GEF
Part 1: Generating a national vision

Developing effective policies related to nature, climate and sustainable development required defining priority areas for policy action. The following areas were chosen:

  1. Protect: Introduction of land use restrictions in ELSAs equivalent to those in already protected areas, supporting natural processes and limiting the exploitation of natural resources in non-urban or agricultural areas.
  2. Manage: Management of agricultural areas, especially with respect to livestock, and the integration of trees into cultivated lands, increasing soil richness, reducing erosion and reducing waste of agricultural resources such as fertilisers and pesticides.
  3. Restore: Active or passive restoration of fragile or degraded ecosystems.
Part 2: Co-Creating the ELSA Map

Having drafted a national vision, Costa Rican policymakers collaborated to map the country's ELSAs. This involved collecting and processing national spatial datasets to define area-based goals for land protection, management and restoration. Global scientists from the initiative used systematic conservation planning methods to develop a customised analysis that resulted in the first iteration of the ELSA map.

Costa Rican policymakers and the ELSA science team identified and compiled data layers that correspond to the goals they had set in part 1.

Combining spatial data layers such as those depicted below on human footprint, carbon sequestration and croplands, a science team of national and international experts produced initial maps. These were then reviewed by key national stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, the Ministry of Science, Innovation, Technology and Telecommunications and the National Center of High Technology (CeNAT). Open Data from the UN Biodiversity Lab, among other data sources, offers many global data layers to support this analysis, and validated national data was also incorporated.

Figure 2: Maps showing Human Footprint Index, Total Carbon and Croplands
Source: UNDP Costa Rica

The team then combined these data layers to calculate heat maps that spatially represent the importance and urgency of respective topics. They then generated a final map, the Map of Hope, indicating optimal locations for Costa Rica to take nature-based actions to meet its priority policy goals.

Part 3: Mainstreaming the project results

The third and final part of the ELSA process involved communicating the results and incorporating resultant recommendations into relevant policies. The project team thus reviewed the ELSA map to identify opportunities for integrating priority actions into national policies and plans. Specific climate adaption targets and actions inspired by the Map of Hope are now an integral part of the National Adaption Plan.

Figure 3: Development process of the individualised Map of Hope for Costa Rica. |
Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook / UNDP & GEF
Figure 4: Costa Rica's Map of Hope indicating policy recommendations. | Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook / UNDP & GEF
Figure 5: Adjusted National Climate Adaption Plan based on "Map of Hope". | Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook / UNDP & GEF

How to communicate the results?​

To raise awareness of the initiative among the population and strengthen its impact, Costa Rica has developed various communication measures, each using different methods to engage audiences. National policymakers shared two short videos about the initiative: Nature for Climate and Costa Rica Solution; and UNDP Costa Rica published the photo essay Mapping Hope: Nature for Climate, which uses graphics and quotes to tell the story of the project.

How can better data contribute to better policy? ​

The ELSA methodology leverages spatial data to determine where nature-based actions have the most significant impact on biodiversity, climate change and human well-being. This approach equips policymakers with a robust tool for promoting policy coherence. In Costa Rica, the creation of a customised "Map of Hope" has enabled authorities to identify and prioritise key areas for implementing its National Adaption Plan. The government further leveraged insights from this process to guide the implementation of the nation’s Payments for Environmental Services (PES) program, compensating landowners who protect, manage or restore the essential ecosystems on their land.

Where do we go from here?​

The ELSA methodology has the potential to contribute to the achievement of several global goals and frameworks, including the SDGs, the Rio Conventions and the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. In the future, Costa Rican policymakers will be able to adapt the scope of the ELSA analysis to focus on specific regions or to analyze issues such as water security, climate change adaptation or disaster risk reduction in further detail.

Case Downloads

Integrated Spatial Planning Workbook

Further ressources

Costa Rica National Adaption Plan (ES)
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