May 26, 2007 / 2:52 AM / in 12 years

Costa Rica aims to win "carbon neutral" race

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Green trail-blazer Costa Rica is drawing up plans to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero before 2030, the government said on Thursday, and aims to be the first nation to offset all its carbon.

Sunbeams, filtered by clouds, silhouette a family at the Peace Park in San Jose in this April 22, 2005 file photo. Costa Rica is drawing up plans to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero before 2030. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

Environment Minister Roberto Dobles said the tiny, jungle-cloaked Central American nation would clean up its fossil fuel-fired power plants, promote hybrid vehicles and increase tree planting to balance its emissions.

“The goal is to be carbon neutral,” Dobles told Reuters. “We’d like to do it in the next 20 years.” He said Costa Rica would also eliminate net emissions of other greenhouse gases.

Costa Rica is a leader on green issues, with protected areas like national parks and biological reserves covering more than a quarter of its territory.

The country generates 78 percent of its energy with hydroelectric power and another 18 percent by wind or geothermally. It now plans to cut emissions from transport, farming and industry.

Faced with mounting evidence that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming, many nations and companies are looking at ways to reduce their net carbon output.

In April, world number five oil exporter Norway said it was aiming to get rid of its net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The EU says it will cut emissions 20-30 percent by 2020. California aims to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

But Costa Rica believes it can still become a voluntarily carbon neutral country before anyone else.

“We think we can get there first,” said Dobles.

Costa Rica has a headstart. According to the United Nations, in 2003 the country produced roughly 1.5 tonnes of carbon per person, compared to close to 10 tonnes in Norway.

At the heart of the Costa Rica’s anti-carbon efforts are payments that compensate landowners for growing trees to capture carbon and protect watersheds. The government also plans payments to protect wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.

The program, launched in 1997 and funded by a 3.5 percent tax on gasoline and by loans and grants, now pays out about $15 million a year to nearly 8,000 property owners.

“The fact that Costa Rica has applied (payments) on a national scale is what’s innovative,” said Esteban Brenes, a conservation finance expert at the World Wildlife Fund.

Not all environmentalists have good things to say about the idea of capturing carbon to offset emissions.

“It’s a deception to allow polluters to continue to pollute with makeup to mask it,” said Juan Figuerola, forestry coordinator for the Costa Rican Conservation Federation.

Some other countries in the world, mainly in Africa, are virtually carbon-neutral, because poverty prevents them from emitting more greenhouse gases.

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