San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Experts Disagree on Carbon-Neutral Goal

The formula for carbon neutrality occupies a hefty white binder, rife with pages-long-chemistry equations that account for everything from cow flatulence to exhaustbelching automobiles.

It sits on the shelf in Roberto Villalobos’ corner office in the National Meteorological Institute (IMN) building, overlooking a loud, traffic-infested street in downtown San José.

“It is an incredibly complicated formula, and very involved,” said Villalobos, director of the institute’s Climate Change program, as he removed the book from the shelf and plopped it on the cluttered desk of his office.

A carbon-neutral country balances its carbon-dioxide emissions with the carbon it captures, largely through its forests, which absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide through natural processes.

The calculations for Costa Rica are based on International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) mandated formulas. According to Villalobos, President Oscar Arias’ goal, carbon neutrality by 2021, is well within reach.

Not everyone is convinced. Critics caution that the concept, while concrete, is easily lost in political hype and that thus far, the goal, announced by the President three months ago, has promised much but done little. Proponents disagree.

“Over the years, Costa Rica has proven its commitment to environmental causes, and the ability to achieve this goal,” said Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles in an interview with The Tico Times earlier this week.

Outside experts say the goal isn’t that far- fetched and insist that a well-thought out, well-executed plan that reduces emissions can work, but only in the short term.

“It’s a moving target. A country that undertakes the goal of becoming carbon neutral has to start from a clearly drawn, very specific baseline, and ensure that it stays robust,” said Mike Mastrandrea, a scientist and climate change expert who works for StanfordUniversity’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

The most recent statistics, according to Villalobos, show that Costa Rica emitted roughly 12.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005, and absorbed just 2.4.

According to Villalobos, the vast majority of Costa Rica’s emissions come from two major sectors: agriculture and energy, though he says the categories might be misleading (see graph).

Under the general heading of “energy” on Villalobos’ heaping pile of pie charts and graphs falls “transportation,” which he pinpoints as one of the country’s primary source of carbon-dioxide emissions.

“Just look around the city, and you’ll understand the problem,” he said. The number of automobiles in the country rose from 180,000 in 1985 to 1,060,000 in 2006 (TT, June 15).

“It’s the sector that needs the most work,” he said.

The release of methane from cattle excrement and the application of chemical fertilizers that release a potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, also weigh heavily, particularly in the agriculture-intensive Caribbean slope, Villalobos said.

Head Start

Despite the country’s dependence on both cars and agriculture, government officials insist Costa Rica has a head start in the race to become carbon neutral, and will achieve its goal on time.

According to Environment Minister Dobles, the country’s advantages far outweigh the challenges. In 2004, Costa Ricans emitted 1.51 metric tons of carbon per capita, according to the United Nations Statistics Division.

By comparison, the average U.S. citizen was responsible for 20.4 metric tons of carbon, nearly 13.5 times more than the average Tico.

“We have an incredible advantage over most countries in the world,” Dobles said, adding that many businesses in Costa Rica are already looking for ways to become carbon neutral, steps that will accelerate the country’s greater goal of carbon neutrality.

“Look at the airlines. Look at EarthUniversity. This is a trend here,” he said. Costa Rica has no large-scale industry, he added, and already has initiatives in place –most notably the Payment for Environmental Services Program, operated by the National Forest Financing Fund (FONAFIFO) – to encourage the preservation of its forests and promote further reforestation, both of which serve to capture carbon and tilt the balance toward carbon neutrality (TT, Sept. 28).

Thanks in part to this program, the country is also one of the few worldwide bucking a global trend of deforestation (TT, June 15).

Dobles also points to the country’s relatively large area of protected lands, estimated at 25% of national territory and likely to increase to 30% or more in the future.

President Arias’ promise to become the first carbon-neutral country has also attracted the attention of foreign businesses looking to reduce their carbon “footprint” by investing in clean energy programs in Costa Rica, Dobles said.

Villalobos, of the Climate Change program at the Meteorological Institute, said this snowball effect and the country’s proven history and clean energy sources will eventually make it “the place to invest” for companies seeking to reduce their impact.

“This is a country where 98% of our energy production is already clean, and carbon neutral. For a business looking to invest here, it’s that much easier then to become carbon neutral,” he said. “It’s a huge competitive advantage for our country.”

The President’s recently announced Peace with Nature program also mandates that all government ministries take immediate action to begin reducing their carbon footprint and environmental impact, along with a well-publicized goal to plant 5 million trees per year (TT, July 27).

“This is a concrete goal, and a huge number of trees. It will make Costa Rica the country in the world with the most trees per capita,” Dobles said.

Business as Usual?

Skeptics say planting trees isn’t enough, and worry that the actions taken thus far by the government are simply meant to promote business, not a healthy environment.

“This is a strategy intended to capture money and business under the auspices of conservation,” said Mauricio Alvarez, of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON).

He believes that the government’s treeplanting campaign is a “feel-good” approach but does little to attack the real problems, the country’s issues with transportation and agricultural practices.

“The way we consume energy in our cars, in our homes, must change if we are going to attack this problem in the longterm.

The government is proposing only short-term solutions,” he said.

National University (UNA) biologist Orlando Chinchilla, a director of the Institute for Forestry Investigation and Services (INISEFOR), explains that planting 5 million trees per year is a viable way to achieve the goal, but said the process must be carefully managed.

“Trees must be planted and care must be taken to ensure that they grow, and do what they’re meant to do – capture carbon,” he said.

Chinchilla is skeptical that such a largescale program can ensure the care necessary to “follow up” on every tree planted. He, like Alvarez, believes that education must come first.

“The goal seems very political. What it needs to become is a serious effort to educate our people about how to reduce their impact,” he said.

Mastrandrea, of Stanford, has visited Costa Rica only once, on vacation years ago. He said he was impressed by some of the country’s accomplishments and believes the goal is viable.

The country has distinct advantages, he concedes, and these, combined with planting trees and modest changes in lifestyle, may help Costa Rica reach carbon neutrality on schedule, but what happens when land runs out, and no more trees can be planted? “Yes, you might achieve carbon neutrality by 2021, but what about in 2050? The question that must be asked is, ‘Is this sustainable in the long-term?’” he said.


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