San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

President Aims for Carbon Neutrality

The race is on.

In perhaps his boldest environmental move yet, President Oscar Arias announced that Costa Rica will be carbon neutral by 2021 – and hopes to be the first in the world to reach the green benchmark.

That means bulking up on forest cover and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, according to experts.

The deadline may be new – but Costa Rica’s fundamental commitment to the environment isn’t, resident Arias said in a speech at the Wharton Global Alumni Forum on Business and the Environment at the Real-Intercontinental Hotel in the southwest Central Valley town of Escazú June 7.

“While other countries were cutting down their trees, Costa Rica was planting for our future, creating a 10% gain in the amount of territory blessed with leafy vegetation,” he said.

The President’s announcement came at the tail end of San José’s notorious evening rush hour, when thousands of Costa Ricans flee the city for suburbia in cars and old buses belching fumes on heavily congested roads.

Despite the honking horns and clouds of exhaust just outside the hotel’s windows, Arias reminded his audience that hydrocarbons – including gasoline and diesel – bear a heavy tax burden in Costa Rica, making fuel here more expensive than in any other country in Central America.

Three percent of these taxes fund Costa Rica’s cutting-edge payment for environmental services program, called the National Forest Financing Fund (FONAFIFO), which compensates landowners for growing trees.

The program doles out almost $15 million a year to more than 8,000 property owners (TT, May 25).

“Today Costa Rica is the only developing country to have adopted a tax on hydrocarbons,” Arias said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of crude.”

On World Environment Day last week, Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles announced the country’s intentions to promote hybrid vehicles and encourage use of public transportation to cut down on emissions, as well as a tree-planting campaign to continue the reforestation process (TT, June 8).

Dozens of the world’s most respected leaders in climate change research and economics at the Wharton event applauded the country’s commitment, heralding it as the kind of bold initiative required to stem global warming.

“Costa Rica is a pioneer in the fight against climate change,” said Chris Taylor, an English economist and co-author of the Stern Review, a report released earlier this year that put a global economic price on climate change. “It shows what good policies can do, and puts pressure on other country’s to follow suit.”

Taylor acknowledges Costa Rica’s hurdles aren’t as daunting as those faced by larger nations. According to Jesus Ugalde, a scientist with the private National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) research center, the most recent studies suggest Costa Rica is 45-51% forested – and that number is growing, making it among the few countries bucking a worldwide trend of deforestation.

Trees – especially in dense, jungle areas, act as a counterweight to greenhouse gas emissions, absorbing carbon dioxide and preventing it from accumulating in the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Besides protecting trees through special environmental programs and national parks, Costa Rica has also acted to stem the production of greenhouse gases, emphasizing renewable energy sources instead.

According to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), last year about 80% of electricity consumed in the country was hydroelectric, 14% geothermal and only 6% oil-based thermal, placing the country among the world’s “greenest” energy producers (TT April 27).

“Considering the recent oil prices spikes and fears of peak production, there is no doubt the old adage is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of crude,”Arias said.

Costa Rica ranks 108th in the world when it comes to emissions – producing less than 0.1% of the world’s total carbon dioxide output, compared to 24.3% from the United States, 14.5% from China. But every little bit counts, according to economist Taylor, and most important of all is attitude and commitment.

According to Taylor, countries such as Costa Rica, despite their small size, have taken concrete steps – and serve as an example for other nations.

“The solution to global climate change will be driven by individual countries’ domestic policies – and people looking longterm, as Costa Ricans are, will help drive change globally,” he said.

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