Science & Tech

Costa Rican minister outlines plan to achieve carbon neutrality through reforms

5 min read

Costa Rica’s environment minister outlined the Central American nation’s plans to become carbon neutral by 2021 through green reforms in energy, transportation, government, and private industry sectors.

The effort, announced a year ago, seeks to make Costa Rica the first nation to emit no excess carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming. This goal would be achieved through a combination of green reforms to reduce emissions from power plants and automobiles, and measures such as planting trees.

Minister of the Environment and Energy Roberto Dobles spoke at Maxwell Dworkin’s Lessin Auditorium for about an hour Friday (May 16), outlining Costa Rica’s broad plans and taking questions from the audience.

The talk ended a day of meetings for Dobles, who also spoke with student and faculty groups during smaller sessions throughout the day, according to Harvard University Center for the Environment Managing Director James Clem. The Harvard visit is the first stop in a tour of the United States by a Costa Rican delegation seeking advice from top universities on how best to fulfill their carbon neutrality pledge. The tour is hosted by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dobles’ lecture, “Costa Rica: The Carbon Neutrality Challenge,” was the last hosted by the Center for the Environment this academic year. After Dobles spoke, center Director Daniel Schrag, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, said that though some people had expressed skepticism about Costa Rica’s pledge before the talk, he hoped they now saw that Costa Rica was showing “great leadership.”

Costa Rica’s plan, outlined by Dobles, comprises complementary national and international strategies. The national strategy consists of mitigation, adaptation, metrics, education, and financing. The international strategy consists of exerting influence on other nations, attracting foreign financial resources, participating in international forums, and capacity building in international carbon markets.

Dobles said the nation wants to be not only “carbon neutral” but completely “climate neutral,” meaning it would like to eliminate emissions of all global-warming gasses, such as methane, and not just carbon dioxide, which has gained much of the attention and blame for global warming.

Costa Rica has a head start over other nations in achieving this goal in that it already obtains much of its power from renewable resources. Costa Rica gets 90 percent of its energy from such sources, largely hydropower, with some contribution from wind and geothermal sources.

Dobles admitted that taming the transportation sector remains a large challenge, since, as in the United States, a significant portion of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. He said that conservation can result in some savings, and so can technology as older cars and trucks are retired, and newer, cleaner models hit the roads. In addition, Dobles said, officials are hoping still-to-be-developed technology can provide additional alternatives.

The nation’s plans to achieve carbon neutrality also rely heavily on mitigation — offsetting carbon emissions through a nationwide tree-planting program that has been under way for more than a decade and has reversed decades of deforestation.

Tree planting is thought to ease the threat of climate change because trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow, locking carbon up in their wood and other tissues so that it isn’t available in the atmosphere.

The program, funded by a tax on gasoline, pays private landowners to plant trees. Dobles said the tree-planting program goes hand in hand with efforts to beautify the nation and protect its biological diversity, and has reversed a trend of deforestation that saw Costa Rica fall from 75 percent forest cover in the 1940s to just 21 percent in 1987. By 1997, the nation had been reforested so that 42 percent was tree-covered, and by 2005 more than half of the country had forest cover.

Though continued reforestation is an important part of the plan, Dobles said the carbon neutral program is seeking varied solutions in different sectors, both geographically and functionally. The business sector, he said, will be critical to success, and the nation hopes the green goals will foster new efficiencies and ways of doing business that will translate to greater profitability.

Dobles said the nation’s commitment is serious enough that he even took into account the greenhouse gases generated by his flight to the United States and purchased mitigation certificates for it.

Dobles said the national effort represents a “paradigm change” in the way people and governments think about energy consumption. In Norway, which has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, Dobles said the government issued a decree that shopping centers had to be located within cities to reduce the need for people to travel to do their shopping.

“We are committed to this paradigm change,” Dobles said.