San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica Says ‘Yes We Can’ to Copenhagen Climate Change Summit

Costa Rica has high hopes for next week’s United Nations (U.N.) climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, where representatives from 192 countries will seek consensus on an international strategy to combat global warming.

With a strong reputation for conservation, high reforestation rates and a 2021 carbon neutrality goal on their side, delegates from the small Central American country believe they can make a big impression on leaders from across the globe.

But with land space for additional reforestation running out, and a growing transportation sector that has yet to clean up its emissions, the green plank that leaders from the so-called Switzerland of Central America will use to leverage their demands will have a lot of weight to bear.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of the the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) announced the proposal they plan to take to the Copenhagen negotiation table.

According to the Costa Rican program, developed countries, such as the United States, must reduce emissions by at least 45 percent before the year 2020. Officials also will demand that these nations provide technological and financial support to developing and underdeveloped nations to help them adapt to climate change.

The World Bank estimates that the world’s developing nations will need $400 billion per year for mitigation and close to $100 billion annually for adaptation.

Costa Rican negotiators also will insist that a new agreement include accords recognizing the contribution of forest conservation and reforestation in mitigating climate change, provisions that were left out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Deforestation causes 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N.

Costa Rica’s chief negotiator at the talks, Alvaro Umaña, said carbon sequestration by planting and preserving trees is the “cheapest and easiest way to reduce emissions.”

Umaña, environment minister during President Oscar Arias’ first term in office during the late 1980s, will propose that countries adopt mechanisms to reverse deforestation – systems known as REDD +, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – and implement initiatives such as Costa Rica’s payment for environmental services, a program that uses a 3.5 percent gas tax to pay rural residents and farmers to plant trees and protect forests on their property. The program is considered to have played a major role in Costa Rica’s ability to regenerate forest on more than 30 percent of its national lands over the past two decades and buck worldwide trends to the contrary.

In 2010, the National Forestry Financing Fund will divvy up ?15,895 million (roughly $28 million) among rural residents to protect forests as part of the payment for environmental services subsidy. Developing country Brazil has announced its support for REDD+ initiatives, albeit reluctantly, and underdeveloped Indonesia also backs the plan. Earlier this year, the U.N. released $18 million in funds to reverse deforestation trends in five countries with tropical forests. Costa Rica was not one of them.

But critics have argued that placing too much faith in reforestation can pull attention away from other critical sectors. As Costa Rican delegates head to Copenhagen with a list of demands in one hand and a tin can in the other, they may have a tough time proving to other world leaders that the country is capable of taming harmful emissions.

A recent study estimates that, due to the amount of land needed for agricultural and residential use, Costa Rica can only recover forests on about an additional 11 percent of its land. With 12 megatons of CO2 emissions per year – a number that is expected to grow during the next decade – Costa Rica will not be able to absorb its pollution solely by planting more trees.

“We can’t plant our way out of this problem,” said Roberto Jiménez, who has studied the country’s carbon neutral ambition. Costa Rica’s biggest challenge is transportation, a sector that has been growing on an annual basis and is responsible for the majority of the country’s emissions. Costa Rica has attempted to implement plans designed to help clean its smoky exhaust pipes, but many of them have crashed against some hefty roadblocks.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias recently deemed a proposal for a new electric train system too expensive for the country, while the implementation of Interlinea, a more efficient bus circuit that would circle downtown San José, is being held up by lawsuits filed in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

A biofuels program that was scheduled to take off in October 2008 will not hit gas pumps until April of 2010. The program has come under fire from researchers as a costly diversion that will prolong the inevitable switch to electric vehicles.

More daunting than the country’s transportation woes are the price tags that loom overhead. While overall cost studies are still in the works, Umaña said carbon neutral initiatives will ring up a bill of about $7 billion for Costa Rica, adding that would represent about 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product for the next 20 to 30 years. But Costa Rica doesn’t have 20-30 years in which to implement the initiative. It promised carbon neutrality by 2021.

Even in the face of all the country’s emissions struggles, Umaña told journalists on Tuesday that achieving zero net emissions in little more than a decade would remain Costa Rica’s position at Copenhagen and would be the keystone that holds the country’s proposal together.

Long term, Costa Rican delegates will ask countries to cut emissions by 95 percent before 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Representatives will also recommend penalties for countries that do not comply with specific emission reduction goals.

Both Brazil and China are considering 40 to 45 percent emissions reductions by the year 2020. Their industrialized partner, the United States, proposes a 17 percent reduction by that date, less than the 20 percent cut that the country’s own Waxman-Markey Climate Change bill promises.

The Copenhagen negotiations have been downplayed in recent weeks because world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, decided at a Nov. 15 summit in Singapore to seek a short-term, general consensus to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide assistance to developing countries rather than produce a legally binding treaty that would yield specific emission reduction targets and set precise financial aid figures. The decision is designed to give high emitting nations, such as the U.S. and China, more time to work out compromises on emissions caps.

Umaña acknowledged that none of his demands would have legal legs this time around, but he urged that the recently awarded time extension “should not be used as an excuse not to act.”

Firm global agreements will follow in 2010, according to news reports.

But with or without a legal pact, Costa Rica has a lot to prove on next week’s global stage in northern Europe as it assembles a forest green negotiation slate, but one stained with black exhaust – fume fingerprints.

And perhaps in ironic mimicry of then – presidential candidate Barack Obama’s celebrated campaign slogan, Umaña concluded his pre-Copenhagen remarks on Tuesday with an earnest “Yes we can.”

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