Toward the end of the 1960’s, a group of Costa Rican scientists, engineers, Environment Ministry officials and natural resource economists began to experiment with ways to reverse a decades-old problem: tropical forests were being stripped like old paint.
Farmers across the country chopped down trees to make way for crops and livestock, and loggers felled forests in order to stock wood supplies. Eventually, Costa Rica lost nearly two-thirds of its forest cover.
Faced with exhausting the lumber source for the country’s construction sector, Costa Rican experts needed a plan that would prevent Costa Rica from losing all of its forest coverage.
By 1996, the experiment morphed into the Payment for Environmental Services program (PSA), an initiative that levies a 3.5 percent tax on gasoline and uses the funds to pay private landowners to plant and protect trees.
Original concerns over deforestation in Costa Rica had little to do with modern environmental issues like carbon sequestration, but with PSA the country stumbled onto what has become one of the most important strings in climate change negotiations.
Initiatives like the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, known as REDD plus, offer financial incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reforestation. These programs have proven useful in capturing carbon, and developing countries are lining up to receive funding from partners in the developed world.
During this week’s U.N. climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico, Costa Rica’s delegation has taken a firm stance, urging developed nations to funnel more money into REDD plus plans in the developing world. Costa Rican delegates are hoping that their country’s success will throw power behind its demands (see “Perspective,” Page 13).
But will this stern position benefit Costa Rica?
“It sounds like one of those things that is good for the world but marginally good for Costa Rica,” said Roberto Jiménez, director of CO2neutral2021, a non-governmental organization dedicated to achieving carbon neutrality in Costa Rica. “Big winners in REDD will be countries like Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and Malaysia.”
Costa Rica has excelled with internal policies on REDD plus initiatives. It has reversed deforestation trends and more than 50 percent of its land is covered with forest. The country doesn’t appear to need funding for reforestation.
For Jiménez, Costa Rica must confront a separate industrialized monster, one that threatens the credibility of its pitch on climate change: pollution from combustible engines.
“We need to catch up,” Jiménez said. “We have fallen behind in terms of having a real, meaningful proposal for a developing country.”
Nearly half of Costa Rica’s carbon emissions originate in the transportation sector, and while other countries are putting together concrete proposals to curb fossil fuel dependence, Costa Rica’s strong push for reforestation has drawn the country’s attention away from its largest polluter.
“Costa Rica has this flashy proposal, carbon neutral by 2021, but it isn’t delivering,” Jiménez said. “Mexico and Chile and Colombia, on the other hand, don’t have flashy proposals but they have serious proposals with real numbers. They say, ‘If you give us the money, here is what we are going to do.’”
Rather than securing funding for REDD, Jimenez said, Costa Rican representatives should seek cash for another climate change buzz acronym: NAMAs, or Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions.
Costa Rica’s 2021 benchmark sounds good, but its transportation proposals are hazy.
A biofuels program that would sell a gasoline mix of up to 10 percent ethanol has been stalled for more than three years, and plans for electric transit have been shelved.
While other countries have begun to write NAMA proposals, Jiménez worries that the country’s lack of solid actions in reducing transportation emissions could cost the country potential funding.
Still, while Costa Rica’s government representatives focus on reforestation efforts, a group of young delegates from CO2neutral2021 have joined the delegation to push for NAMA initiatives.
Rafael Monge, a conference delegate representing CO2neutral2021, called tech-nology transfers “one of the most important” aspects of his group’s strategy. Along with others, the group is looking for ways to establish networks and technology transfer centers to bring high-tech advances to Costa Rica.
This year’s talks in Cancún are smaller than last year’s negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, and have received much less media attention.
But that doesn’t make the talks any less important.
Countries like Costa Rica are laying the groundwork for NAMA initiatives in the Rio de Janeiro round of talks in 2012, as well as beginning to look for revenue sources. The current Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
In her speech before conference attendees, Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, recently named executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, called Cancún the “next essential step en route toward an adequate confrontation with climate change,” adding that, “confidence has been reestablished.”
But, for Costa Rica to benefit from Rio’s 2012 talks, it needs to forget about its REDDs and better define its NAMAs.