San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Three Energy Gatekeepers Leap Obstacles

Daniela García spends her days at the National University (UNA) leading workshops on energy efficiency and sustainability and educating students and professors about waste reduction and recycling. On her computer, she creates posters and brochures and sends out e-mails that ask people to think twice before they print what they see on the screen.

She decides how many trees to plant on campus and where, and she seeks out environmentally friendly cleaning products.

As director of UNA’s Campus Sostenible Program, García hopes to clean up the university grounds.

Kate Cruse has similar ambitions.

At the British Embassy, perched near the top of the 12-story Centro Colón building near downtown San José, Cruse scrambles daily to pinpoint areas where improvements can be made in water and electricity use, searching for leaky faucets that need urgent repairs and idle electronics that are uselessly drawing power.

Cruse keeps track of all the trips that she and her colleagues take and tallies up the amount of gasoline that each one requires.

She is amazed at the amount of jet fuel that diplomats can burn in a year.

Juan González is president of the Costa Rican Chamber of Industries. Constant shipments around Costa Rica and inefficient distribution routes are just two of his major concerns.

All three people work in different arenas– Garcia at a university, Cruz in an office and González in an entire job sector – but all three face a similar challenge: how to reduce emissions at a time when public awareness about the issue is growing, but has yet to enter the mainstream.

“It’s a full-time job,” García said. “We find that the people say they want changes. They ask for changes. But when we tell them to reuse something, or turn off the light, or do something more efficiently, well, sometimes it’s hard to get them to change their habits.”

García’s staff began calculating the UNA’s carbon footprint in 2008. They considered solid and liquid waste, power consumption and emissions at each university facility, transportation to and from the university, and even the fertilizer that the institute uses for university projects and consumes by serving non-organic cafeteria food. The methane from the fertilizer and non-organic foods, Garcia said, is one of her greatest concerns.

The gas produces 20 percent more carbon dioxide than most other products.

All in all, the UNA emitted 4,863 tons of CO2 in 2008, according to their formula.

That’s 302 kilograms (665 pounds) per person per year, only for the time that staff and students spend on campus.

The World Health Organization recommends no more than two tons of CO2 emissions per year per person to prevent global warming and to protect humans from pollution.

In addition to aggressive recycling and energy reduction programs, the UNA planted and maintained more than 2,000 trees in 2008 in hopes of offsetting their carbon footprint.

“It’s a process,” García said. “The important thing is to take steps forward.”

Cruse has been working with the National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO) to plant trees to offset British Embassy emissions. But travel is her biggest headache.

With only 14 people working at the embassy, Cruse estimates that last year’s business flights spewed about 40 tons of CO2 into the air. Vehicle trips added 19 tons.

Cruse would like to limit business flights to one per year, but even she scheduled six flights in 2010 just to check up on initiatives to reduce ecological footprints in other British embassy offices in Central America and the Caribbean.

In the Costa Rica office this year, she focused her efforts on trimming water consumption. It appears to have worked.

By installing a more efficient toilet system and quickly patching water leaks the embassy cut its water consumption from 120 cubic meters per month to 100 cubic meters per month.

But as Cruse turned most of her attention to reductions in water use, another problem arose. Energy consumption increased by 25 percent, thanks in part to the office air conditioner that some staffers don’t want to turn off.

“It’s quite frustrating sometimes,” she said. “You put these changes in that you are told will make a big difference and they don’t. When you realize you’ve made an impact in one area, a problem comes up in another area. Some things you have success with. Others, not so much.”

Transportation and energy weigh just as heavily on González’ mind.

In September 2009, the Costa Rican Chamber of Industries adopted a National Climate Change Strategy in order to reduce emissions, but the chamber has a steep hill to climb.

Industrial CO2 emissions from energy use more than doubled in Costa Rica between 2005 and 2008. Using the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s energy equivalent conversion formula, the chamber calculates that energy emissions have soared from 726,988 tons in 2005 to more than 1.5 million tons last year.

González said the majority of these emissions come from transporting goods around the country and importing prime materials from overseas. Most producers, especially in the agriculture sector, ship their products through San José before the goods reach their final destinations – perhaps a port in Limón on the Caribbean or a supermarket in Puntarenas on the central Pacific.

“There needs to be more order in the way we distribute things,” he said. “Why ship something from the southern zone to the Central Valley if it is going to end up back in the southern zone? We need to localize things when we can. Sure, there are other options – such as electric transport – but that won’t happen in the next year.”

All three energy gatekeepers said they believe that reductions in energy usage could happen much faster and all three said they believe neutral footprints could arrive much sooner.

So why doesn’t it?

“Politics,” Cruse said.

“Bureaucracy,” García echoed.

And for González, “Change just takes time.”

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