San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Copenhagen Allowed Glimpse of Future

The United Nations Climate Change Conference was once billed as the summit that would successfully reach a global, legally binding agreement to cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and replace the aging Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

But as the talks neared, the difficulty of reaching a worldwide compromise became clear. At a global summit in Singapore in November, the planet’s leaders agreed to establish at the climate change conference this month in Copenhagen, Denmark, a “general political consensus” to cut emissions and provide funds to developing countries funding for emissions mitigation projects rather than sign a legal document that would bind leaders to their words. The new strategy was intended to give certain countries – namely China and the United States – more time to work out differences.

The outcome of the Copenhagen meeting was a three-page document that didn’t set a single emissions target and left some of the most modest expectations unmet. The signature pages attached to the document are empty, and the attending nations merely “took note” of the text.

But saying that the “Copenhagen Accord” is a unanimous political agreement is a stretch. Some have even blasted it as a failure. But it does contain a number of forward-thinking initiatives that have the potential to correct some of the Kyoto Protocol’s shortcomings and even suggest a style of diplomacy that could mainstream global environmental policy, pulling “greenies” out of the lobbyist’s corner and up to the table with the big wigs.

For example, the text recognizes the importance of scaling up activities to promote the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD plus). It’s pretty simple – plant trees and they will capture carbon. But it was completely left out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Although carbon sequestration should not be the only part of the emissions reduction equation, it must be planted in national and international accords.

Green-minded policy makers, such as developing Costa Rica, already have demonstrated that REDD plus programs present economic and environmental benefits.

Costa Rica’s Payment for Environmental Services Program (PSA) uses a 3.5 percent fossil fuel tax to pay rural residents to plant and protect trees near their properties.

The program has worked. Forest restoration rates have soared – up 30 percent from 1990 levels.

As a result, the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) struck a deal in September with Equator, a United States-based company that specializes in carbon credit management, to sell 3,000 tons of carbon credits for roughly $9 billion. The money will circle back through the PSA.

These types of simple, internal reforestation initiatives can ease the burden on developed countries, which are expected to pony up billions of dollars in aid for developing nations.

Large economies, such as those of Brazil and Mexico, have now expressed interest in similar REDD plus programs.

The Copenhagen Accord also emphasizes “low emission pathways” and proposes aid and incentives for developing countries that exhibit clean and efficient practices. Costa Rica faces a long road

towards a cleaner transportation sector, and its agricultural sector needs an overhaul as regards efficiency and the use of clean energy.

Fortunately, serious sustainability and climate change initiatives are popping up across the country, and Costa Rican policy makers can quickly develop feasible proposals and thereby jump to the front of the line for financial incentives if they work closely with the coordinators of these programs.

The National University (UNA) established the UNA sustainable campus initiative in 2007. There, Daniela García and a staff of nearly a dozen constantly seek ways to improve waste management, reduce and capture emissions and use chemically safe products.

In recent years, the Ministry of Health has created offices of experts whose mission is to improve recycling habits across the country, and the University of Costa Rica has supported specialists to study

ways institutes can streamline water consumption.

The people behind these initiatives – and many others throughout the country – are aces at identifying and installing efficient, non-polluting technologies and promoting low-emissions, resource-conscious behavior. They will gladly point out where the majority of our carbon footprints fall and offer recommendations on how to neutralize them.

Programs, laws and incentives that inspire this level of thinking and encourage new and clean innovation are essential to a low-emissions future.

The development of new policies – whether municipal, national or global – must rely on this new generation of green scientists and entreprenuers. Their advice can inspire more efficiently produced products that create less material waste and reduce the amount of pollutants that we have grown accustomed to releasing into the environment.

The Copenhagen Accord offers an imperfect beginning to controlling global emissions, but it does offer a glimpse at a new future in which environmental sustainability will be equated with profit and the two will rarely be mutually exclusive.

If national legislation is created with this mindset, money will start to filter through a fresh, green economy and an international, legally binding treaty will begin to sprout.

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