San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Carbon Neutrality Is a Stiff Challenge

Costa Rica‘s goal to become the first carbon neutral country by the year 2021 is ambitious, at the very least. But the science behind calculating its feasibility is imperfect, even at its very best.


Nevertheless, a group of graduate students fromYaleUniversity, who spent two months studying the country’s development trends during the past several decades, recently determined that Costa Rica will produce more carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2021 than it can compensate for, unless it steps up efforts to reduce emissions.


The students’ study projects that Costa Rica, which currently releases 12 megatons of C02 per year, will emit 16 megatons of the gas annually by the year 2021.


Considering the country’s plans to offset carbon emissions, such as reforestation and conservation, Costa Rica will be able to account for 10 megatons of C02 per year when that date arrives, according to the study.


To close the six-megaton emissions gap, the group said the country needs to adopt an aggressive strategy aimed at the reduction of contaminating gases rather than the capture of them.


“We can’t plant our way out of this problem. That myth needs to be dispelled,” said Roberto Jiménez, a Costa Rican Yale graduate who led the initiative.


At a time when the amount of the earth’s forest cover is declining, Costa Rica has managed to boost the amount of the country’s forested land from 21 percent to 51 percent over the past 20 years, according to the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET). But demands on land for agriculture and residential areas mean that only and additional 11 percent of the nation’s land can be forested.


Even if this 11 percent is completely covered, reforestation would sequester only 4.1 megatons per year, the study predicts.


The study says the remainder of the gap would need to be closed by emission reductions resulting from increased use of public transportation, better urban planning and a more efficient energy sector.


Pedro León, director of the government’s Peace with Nature program, said the study confirms what his initiative has long acknowledged as the country’s greatest challenge.


Transportation accounts for 75 percent of Costa Rica’s emissions, and reducing contaminants produced by vehicles would require as much of an individual change as a political push, he said.


“Transportation is, by far, our biggest challenge,” Leon said. “Today, a lot of people drive alone, and that’s a habit we need to change, especially with the type of cars we have on the road.”


The government recently installed two commuter trains to enhance public transportation in the metro area – one between Pavas and San Pedro and the other from Heredia to San José – but both trains operate with diesel engines, which contribute to CO2 emissions.


The Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) plans to build the infrastructure for an electric train and is working out details for financing the project. The government recently offered $100 million to complete the project, which is estimated to cost more than $700 million.


The ministry hopes to begin this construction project in 2011.


León noted that switching to electric and hybrid cars is also critical to reducing emissions, although the government has not introduced plans to create a large-scale market for these vehicles.


On Tuesday, Sep. 9, MINAET released its National Climate Change Strategy, which targets the private sector in cutting the country’s emissions.


The 109-page plan, which also identifies transportation as a major polluter, emphasizes a series of guidelines that set forth what companies must do to become carbon neutral. The guidelines are not mandatory and no laws back them, but MINAET officials said that 70 private companies and 10 public institutions have taken significant steps toward accounting for their emissions.


“We would have liked them to be mandatory, but we prefer to say that they’re suggestions,” said Environment Minister Jorge Rodríguez. “Still, it’s a document that we can all gain from.”


He noted that the marketing advantage for a product that is produced by a carbonneutral company should serve as a natural incentive for businesses to use the guides. But, even with bold transportation plans and voluntary improvements to industry sectors, the Yale group’s report estimates that fewer than six megatons of carbon can be offset by 2021.


Jiménez admitted that the group’s numbers aren’t perfect. There is still time for figures to vary and some of the data the group looked at is conflicting.


But, if anything, the six-megaton gap is an indicator that work needs to be done quickly in order to make Costa Rica’s earnest proposal an achievable reality.


“The government has done a good job with getting things started,” Jimenez said. “But we’ve had enough meetings and enough consensus building. The bottom line is that we need to act now or we won’t get to carbon neutrality.”





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