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Is Costa Rica abandoning carbon neutrality?

After a month during which former President Oscar Arias pointedly questioned the commitment of the present administration to making Costa Rica the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021, members of President Laura Chinchilla’s government were scrambling to deny they were abandoning the country’s ambitious, attention-grabbing position. At the same time, however, they were clearly hedging their bets.

Steve Mack

Steve Mack

Some background: Costa Rica was one of the first countries in the world to create a framework for offsetting carbon dioxide emissions through the planting of trees, which sequester CO2 in wood and foliage, or the preservation of forests. As early as 1992, polluters in the developing world were paying to conserve parkland in Costa Rica, and, more recently, a system of paying private landowners to plant trees or conserve forests was implemented, paid for by a tax on gasoline, by polluters buying carbon credits and by international donations.

At a 2009 global climate change meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, Arias significantly raised the stakes, committing Costa Rica to reaching carbon neutrality by 2021, the country’s 200th anniversary. The pledge means that Costa Rica will reduce or offset the same amount of CO2 that it releases into the atmosphere, so that the nation’s net carbon emissions are zero.

In betting on carbon neutrality, Arias and his advisers were thinking beyond global warming or the country’s green image. The pledge also was seen as a way for Costa Rica to upgrade its economic development model to a more prosperous and sustainable one based on science, high technology and clean energy. In his speeches and writings – including his June 19 attack in the daily La Nación on what he saw as the Chinchilla administration’s softness on carbon – Arias has equated carbon neutrality with other major accomplishments in Tico history, including the abolition of the army, universal education and health care, the national park system and the Central American peace process of the 1980s, which he led and for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize.

In this quest, Costa Rica has big advantages, which help make the goal appear misleadingly easy to attain. Most importantly, more than 90 percent of the country’s electrical power is already generated by clean, renewable sources – overwhelmingly hydropower but also including geothermal and wind power. Moreover, the country is rich in the raw resources needed to produce more: abundant rain, wind, sun and liquid hot magma close to the earth’s surface. Also, Costa Rica has good conditions for growing trees (although not much space). The country also has no lack of human resources; many think that much of the technical ability and know-how to achieve carbon neutrality already exists in the country.

What the country lacks, according to experts, is the political will to make necessary decisions and enact policies. In the area of transportation, by far the most contaminating sector of the nation’s economy – and which must be transformed if the goal of carbon neutrality is to be reached – both the Arias and Chinchilla governments have been unable to take basic steps. Among them:

– Heavy taxes on hybrid and electric cars make them inaccessible to anyone except government agencies, which don’t pay taxes. Attempts to remove these taxes have stalled, apparently because of budget concerns.

– Attempts to implement intersectoral bus lines, which would remove many buses from the center of San José, reducing congestion and wasted fuel, as well as attempts to reduce contamination by the country’s enormous bus fleet, so far have been successfully resisted by politically powerful bus companies.

– The country’s biofuels program started several years ago to great fanfare, has not progressed beyond a pilot phase.

– Plans for an electric commuter train system for the Greater Metropolitan Area were not approved by either the Arias or Chinchilla governments because of their high cost, despite the opinion of many analysts that between fares paid by commuters and savings from reduced imports of fossil fuels the system could pay for itself.

In addition, far-reaching legislation to open the country’s electricity system to private investment in clean energy has also been dropped, mostly because of opposition from public sector interests, especially unions.

The Costa Rican government, which has operated at a deficit for several years and which has been unable to enact reforms needed to raise revenue, lacks the means to lead investment in clean energy in a meaningful way.

Two Levels of Leadership

The government’s push for carbon neutrality is centered in a newly created Climate Change Department and the National Meteorological Institute, both within the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET). Energy Vice Minister Andrei Bourrouet, the administration’s point man on carbon neutrality, last month stressed progress toward creating some of the basic infrastructure for the program, including work toward establishing a carbon registry – necessary to keep track of carbon emissions and the sale of carbon credits – as well as establishing standards for businesses seeking carbon neutrality and attempting to improve coordination between government ministries.

It’s clear that these mainly technical and bureaucratic measures, however important, are not enough to move the country’s economy toward carbon neutrality. Without strong political commitment and action at the highest levels of the Chinchilla government and in the Legislative Assembly, the efforts of mid-level officials such as Bourrouet and his colleagues in MINAET will not be nearly enough. In addition, the effort must move beyond the government to include civil society, especially the business community.

Those in the government who are directly responsible for implementing the carbon-neutrality policy appear frustrated by their situation, as well as with the pressure exerted by the 2021 deadline. In an interview with the daily La Nación, Bourrouet said it was “reckless” to have set a date on achieving carbon neutrality without a thorough understanding of the factors involved, while at a public forum last month, the Chinchilla government’s ambassador for environmental issues, Javier Díaz, said what mattered most was that the country adopt a low-emissions development model that would eventually lead to carbon neutrality; the date was “not important.”

In his op-ed piece in La Nación, Arias responded sharply to Bourrouet, saying that what was “reckless” was not the carbon pledge, but that a person without the requisite leadership qualities would accept a leadership post. While Arias is right about the lack of leadership on this issue, in this case he took aim at the wrong target. Effective leadership is lacking not so much at the technical level where the vice minister operates, but at the upper levels of government, where power resides to set basic policy, allocate funds, coordinate among ministries and sectors, and motivate all levels of society. Moreover, Arias’ pledge aside, this kind of high-level leadership on implementing carbon neutrality largely was absent even during his administration.

Steve Mack is an environmental consultant who has lived and worked in Costa Rica for over 20 years, and is a partner in the firm Responsabilidad Ambiental Corporativo. He can be reached at


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