Costa Rica Aims to Be a Carbon-Neutral Nation One of the smallest countries in the world has a big goal. Costa Rica says it wants to be the first developing country to become carbon neutral — that is, to have zero output of carbon dioxide by 2021. But huge challenges lie ahead.

Costa Rica Aims to Be a Carbon-Neutral Nation

Costa Rica Aims to Be a Carbon-Neutral Nation

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One of the smallest countries in the world has a big goal. Costa Rica says it wants to be the first developing country to become carbon neutral — that is, to have zero output of carbon dioxide by 2021. But huge challenges lie ahead.


Now another in our series Climate Connection with National Geographic. Today we go to the Central American nation of Costa Rica. It's announced it wants to be the first developing nation to be carbon-neutral; that is, to have zero output of carbon dioxide. It's goal is to be that by 2021. Though huge challenges lie ahead, Costa Rica already enjoys an international reputation as an eco-paradise.

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MONTAGNE: Now as NPR's John Burnett reports, Costa Rica wants to turn carbon-neutral into a brand.

JOHN BURNETT: Costa Rica hopes this is a glimpse of the future. A small regional air carrier called Nature Air advertises itself as the world's first carbon-neutral airline.

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BURNETT: Their eight twin engine aircraft shuttle tourists between excursions to Costa Rica's white beaches and extravagant rain forests.

Mr. ALEXI HUNTLEY (Nature Air): Over one year we're emitting roughly 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which if you throw that into comparison as to what some of the other airlines are doing, it's roughly what one 747 would emit in 10 days of operation between New York and London.

BURNETT: That's Nature Air's commercial director, Alexi Huntley. His tiny airline offsets its engine exhaust by paying into a Costa Rican government program that saves forests because trees store carbon dioxide.

Mr. HUNTLEY: All our clientele are predisposed for this type of environmental action. They will pay a premium to offset their carbon footprints.

BURNETT: Now, just imagine - what if the entire country were carbon neutral or C-neutral, the hip-hop-esque term they use in government offices? What if everything, every hotel room, every sack of coffee beans, every microprocessor made by Intel carried the C-neutral brand?

Mr. ROBERTO DOBLES (Environment Minister): This will be a very important competitive advantage.

BURNETT: Environment Minister Roberto Dobles describes with a straight face, the brave new world of the carbon-neutral banana.

Mr. DOBLES: What is a carbon neutral banana? Well, a carbon neutral banana is a banana that reduces its emissions at every cultural level, at the local transportation level, from the farms to the port, and that will also reduce the emissions in the boats that take the bananas to different markets.

BURNETT: How does Costa Rica become the first carbon-neutral banana republic? President Oscar Arias has set the goal only 13 years in the future. Preserving forests is part of the answer. Costa Rica has pioneered a forest conservation program that's so successful, the World Bank is replicating it in other countries. A group of government foresters tromps up a lush hillside on a mountain outside of San Jose. The government pays land owners not to cut down forests, or in this case to plant tree plantations. The conservation money comes in part from a 5% tax on gasoline. Forester Roxanna Chacone(ph) points to a stand of spindly trees that looks different from the rest of the forest.

Ms. ROXANNA CHACONE (Forester): (Through Translator) Here what we did was recuperate an area that was used for cattle ranching. Land owners think of cattle, agriculture or selling to a developer, and forest conservation is the last thing they think about. So we need to create an incentive so the property owner will conserve.

BURNETT: It's not a perfect solution. The commercial trees will ultimately be cut down and then more planted. Nevertheless, Chacone says, while the trees are standing, they protect the watershed and capture carbon dioxide. The property owner, Maria Bolanos(ph), who's family owns large cattle ranches, chimes in.

Ms. MARIA BOLANOS: (Spanish Spoken)

BURNETT: If the government project wasn't here, she says, it would be a cattle pasture. Saving trees is important. They're the lungs of the Earth. Costa Rica claims to have planted five million trees last year, although there's no proof how many of them survived, but that's not going to make this or any other country carbon-neutral.

New Zealand and Norway have also pledged to erase their carbon footprints by 2020 and 2050 respectively. What they all have to do is reduce emissions. For illustration, in 2005 Costa Rican plant life absorbed about two and a half million metric tons of CO2, but Costa Ricans produced five times that amount, about twelve and a half million metric tons of CO2. The big obstacle for all three countries is transportation. Costa Rica's middle class is expanding and the number of vehicles grew six-fold in 21 years. In order to reduce tailpipe emissions, the government must convince people to buy hybrid, flex fuel, or plug-in cars. And then there are the buses.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: A gleaming orange bus bound for Colon idles in the San Jose Station. Oscar Montao Anla(ph), paunchy and 52, sits at the wheel. When asked if the owner of the company would invest to lower the emissions of his buses, the driver grins incredulously.

Mr. OSCAR MONTAO ANLA: (Spanish Spoken)

BURNETT: They've got to find a way to add additives to the diesel, but the owner won't spend any more than he's already spending, he says. They don't want to pay for anything like that.

A few streets away a 32-year-old accountant name Saldari Ketos(ph) stands outside of a theater. He's a C-neutral skeptic and a Tico, what Costa Ricans call themselves.

Mr. SALDARI KETOS (Accountant): (Through translator) I'm not against it, but I think it will be very difficult, because here our culture is not educated for such a thing. Ticos like to consume. When a Tico makes more money, he makes more things. Here in the capital we're saturated with cars.

BURNETT: Some Costa Ricans believe their government's goal of zero carbon emissions is a distraction from more pressing environmental problems. Illegal loggers are still hauling out old growth hardwoods. The sprawling national park, system is under-funded. San Jose still dumps untreated sewage directly into rivers. Moreover, there's growing alarm over a proposal by China to explore for oil in Costa Rica and build a new refinery here. Xavier Balcudono(ph), a forest conservation expert, works with a non-profit called Friends of the Earth.

Mr. XAVIER BALCUDONO (Forest Conservation Expert): (Through Translator) The new refinery typifies the double talk of President Arias and his team. He speaks of peace with nature. Nevertheless, he talks of increased investment in something that will not reduce the consumption of petroleum but increase it.

BURNETT: The government says a deal with the Chinese is under consideration but has not been finalized. No one, not the president, not the environment minister, nor their citizens, the Ticos, are under any illusion that C-neutrality is going to be easy.

Dr. ALVARO UMANA (First Minister of Environment, Costa Rica): Carbon neutrality is achievable under a number of heroic assumptions.

BURNETT: Alvaro Umana was Costa Rica's first minister of environment and is an advisor to the current government.

What if some of these heroic assumptions don't come to pass?

Dr. UMANA: What if you don't become carbon neutral but become 90% carbon neutral? I think this still would be a great example to the world.

BURNETT: Or 80% carbon neutral, or 70%. People who work on global warming say considering the sluggish movement of most countries on climate change, Costa Rica's green crusade, however quixotic, should be applauded.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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