San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Progress slow on global climate mitigation

Players in Costa Rica’s efforts to get out ahead of the potential effects of climate change met Monday to review progress, share experiences at climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, and Panama, and discuss expectations for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, Nov. 28-Dec. 9.

Adaptation and mitigation are the two most common catchwords associated with climate change talks this year. Add to that finance.

William Alpízar, climate change director for the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry, said that an agreement on how to help the world’s poorest countries finance efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change would be an important achievement. But he remained circumspect about prospects for such an agreement.

“Personally,” he said, “I think that in Durban we are going to continue repeating exactly the same game that we’ve been through in the past.”

If that sounds pessimistic, there are reasons for it. In 2010, global carbon emissions reached their highest point in history, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a global consulting firm.

That ignominious fact belies a more troubling statistic. Carbon intensity, a measure of emissions relative to a country’s gross domestic product, reversed a 10-year trend in which most countries in the world reduced the amount of carbon emitted per unit of their economy’s GDP. In 2010, the global economy increased its carbon intensity by 0.6 percent.

That means that the target of limiting the average global increase in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, agreed upon at last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancún, just got harder. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report indicates that to stay on track with the 2050 goal, the global economy must reduce emissions per unit of GDP at a rate of 4.8 percent annually. 

In the past 30 years, only China has achieved a steady 4.8 percent rate of decarbonization over a period of 10 years. Only six countries have been able to maintain even a 3 percent reduction rate over any given decade in the last 30 years, according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report. Globally, the report said, carbon intensity dropped at an average rate of approximately 1.3 percent from 1980 to 2010. From 2000 to 2010, when the trend reversed itself, the average rate of decarbonization was 0.7 percent.

In other words, to meet the 2 degree Celsius goal, the world will have to maintain for 40 years a rate of decarbonization that only one country has ever been able to maintain for 10.

The trouble with decarbonizing is the tricky relationship between emissions and economic growth. It’s possible, but tough, to have it both ways, and the cost of shifting economies to a model of growth that also reduces emissions isn’t cheap. Ditto with preparing a poor country to deal with the economic and environmental shocks of a changing climate – hence all the talk about finance.

Rafael Monge of, a nongovernmental group of climate change activists, attended emissions negotiations at the climate change conference in Cancún in 2010. He talked of ways in which civil-society groups like can participate in the fight against climate change.

“We’re a small country,” Monge said. “We don’t have a lot of resources, but we do send a lot of representatives to these events. We worked hard to get financing from institutions apart from the [Costa Rican] government to be able to send the delegation, so that each person followed the negotiations related to a specific theme.”

Financing adaptation and mitigation of climate change for poor countries is just the latest sticking point in the global climate change debate. Recently, the United States and other large, developed and rich countries balked at coughing up funds they had promised to help developing countries create and implement national action plans in the face of global climate chaos.

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, recently wrote an opinion piece about the delay in shucking out cash for climate change mitigation.

“The big questions for [national action plans] center on how they will be funded and implemented in developing countries,” Huq said. “These countries are the most vulnerable to climate change and its impacts and need immediate adaptation funding. They cannot afford to sit tight through the laborious and time-consuming process of preparing and approving [action plans] before they receive funds to prevent harm in climate-vulnerable communities. Neither should they have to.”

For Costa Rica, as a small, developing country in a region that contributes only 0.5 percent of global CO2 emissions annually, there is no onus to pony up money for other countries’ plans. But Alpízar acknowledged that little or no progress can be made in any other of the pressing areas of climate change mitigation without some resolution of the issue of financing developing countries’ plans. Costa Rica receives little international cash for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

René Castro, Costa Rica’s environment minister, focused more on Costa Rica’s plans for becoming a world leader in terms of emissions and cultivating a “green economy.”

Castro said the country aims to have the lowest carbon intensity in the world by 2018, with the goal of being the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021. Castro didn’t provide many details, but said the goals will be reached by developing renewable energy sources and innovations in cleaner fuels and technology.

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