Carbon Controversies in Costa Rica

Monday, August 31, 2009


Everyone needs something to believe in, and for many Latin American progressives, that something for years has been Costa Rica. The country has long been cited as a beacon of progressive tranquility in a region better known for violence, inequality and poverty. Following an uprising in 1948 led by Jose Figueres Ferrer, the country embarked on its own unique path of social democracy, involving extensive progressive taxation, universal health and education availability, and no armed forces. As a result, Costa Rica boasts high levels of human development, including the highest life expectancy in Latin America. Moreover, the country has for years stood out on the issues of environmental protection and conservation, with over 25% of its territory under protective status, as well as an internationally recognized eco-tourism sector. All of the above has led Costa Rica to find itself ruling the roost in the New Economics Foundation´s recent publication of the “Happy Planet Index,” which claims that Costa Ricans are the “happiest” people in the world, enjoying an enviable life expectancy, and consuming considerably less resources than the nationals of more developed countries.

Now, in the 21st century, Costa Rica claims to be taking these advances to the next level: taking the initiative on climate change, and thereby reconciling the traditionally antagonistic processes of development and environmental sustainability. Its Government has unveiled a nationwide initiative aimed at making “peace with nature,” and has put the country amongst a small but growing number of nations committed to going “carbon neutral.” Besides the Maldives, Costa Rica, is the only developing country to make carbon neutrality an explicit government objective.

Carbon Neutrality: Definitions and Controversies

Of course, if it were to achieve its goal, Costa Rica would not actually be the first country to have sustainably low levels of carbon emissions. Many countries already have reached them, but they are generally highly underdeveloped societies, with levels of poverty so high that greenhouse gas emissions are negligible. Given the low levels of human development and welfare in such countries, this form of “carbon neutrality” is obviously not considered desirable from a humanist perspective. Environmentalists of all hues have accepted the need to balance human wellbeing with environmental sustainability. It is claimed that the uniqueness of Costa Rica´s promise is that it can, and will, increase the wellbeing of its population while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint significantly. In doing so, the Government is ambitiously claiming to be charting a path to the fabled land of “sustainable development,” a somewhat elusive concept which has beguiled governments, development agencies and private companies ever since the Brundtland Report in 1987. In this report, sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But there may be some discordant to this structure. First, it must be recognized that carbon neutrality does not necessarily mean zero carbon emissions. What it more likely means is net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, meaning that any emissions are balanced by an equivalent offset, or sequester. According to its proponents, offsetting can either removestop greenhouse gas emissions, thereby allowing individuals, companies and governments to have a zero net effect on the world´s atmosphere. The attractiveness of the idea has meant that carbon neutrality is fast becoming one of the buzzword phrases of the twenty-first century, used by institutions as diverse as the Vatican, the World Cup, the Chinese Olympics, the World Bank and companies such as Body Shop. However, dependence on the concept of offsetting has led to it now being fiercely challenged in some environmentalist quarters. The London based organization Carbon Trade Watch warns that the idea of “carbon neutrality” is tantamount to indulging in a “business as normal” approach based on the flawed idea that persistently high levels of emissions can be maintained as long as they are offset somewhere else, or at some other time. Carbon neutrality implies, deceptively, that such emissions can then be taken out of the atmosphere, but there is significant scientific evidence that this is not the case.

“A Que Sembrás un Árbol”: Planting trees to save the planet

We learn to associate trees with environmentalism from an early age. As well as playing a crucial role in climate and water regulation, they are one of the most common and widely recognized manifestations of “nature”, to the extent that high-profile conservationist organizations like the Sierra Club use them as their logo, and environmentalists are often derided as “tree-huggers.” In their highly critical report Carbon Neutral Myth, Carbon Trade Watch claims that “the idea of planting trees in order to ‘neutralize’ emissions taps into a pre-existing cultural notion that something with obvious environmental benefits could be used to cancel out doing something environmentally damaging.” Given this, it is unsurprising that any country committed to carbon neutrality would initiate a massive national level tree planting campaign in order to expand its carbon “sinks.” This concept has been largely inspired by Wangari Maathai, a legendary Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. By advocating the mass planting of trees to provide incomes to rural families, improve soil quality and combat climate change, Maathai has quickly become the darling of international development agencies, particularly the United Nations, which appointed her as the spearhead of the Billion Tree Campaign.

Nowhere have Maathai´s ideas been seized upon so enthusiastically as in Costa Rica, where the government has implemented a nationwide campaign entitled “a que sembrás un árbol”, which has mobilized broad sectors of society into planting 4.5 million trees in 2007 and 7 million in 2008. President Arias claims that this initiative means that Costa Rica now has the highest tree/per inhabitant ratio in the world, and that the 7 million trees grown in 2008, for example, meant that 2.3 million less tons of carbon dioxide would now be in the atmosphere. So what could the environmentalist groups possibly be complaining about?

While virtually all environmentalist organizations recognize the importance of protecting forests and reforestation projects as a means of rehabilitating natural habitats and regulating the atmosphere, the extent to which mass tree planting initiatives are viable ways of combating climate change is highly disputed. In The Carbon Neutral Myth, Carbon Trading Watch outlines a whole host of objections to the assumption that tree planting can really compensate for persistently high greenhouse gas emissions. At a basic level, trees function in the active carbon cycle, in which there is “continual movement of carbon among plants, organisms, water and the atmosphere.” Emissions from the use of fossil fuels (the primary contributor to climate change) represent the releasing of previously “inert” carbon from the ground into the active cycle. Once released, no amount of trees can permanently remove such emissions from the atmosphere. Furthermore, offset calculations invariably assume that trees will last a full life, and then die naturally. As is well known, though, there are a whole range of factors which could put pressure on the trees in the future, meaning that there is no guarantee of their long term survival. If such trees were to be destroyed, for example by eventual logging or even by climate change itself, they would actually give off greenhouse gases, thereby making a net increase in greenhouse emissions. Moreover, even if one could guarantee their long-term survival, it is doubtful whether such long-term projections of “offset” carbon should really be used in climate change policy decisions. If one were to accept the consensus view of the scientific community that rising emissions in the next few decades will have serious long-term effects on the world´s climate, it becomes clear that the emphasis should be on companies and individuals to avoid emissions now, rather than paying to offset them on the basis of highly doubtful estimations.

Ultimately, any reasonable consideration of all the uncertainties relating to trees’ ability to act as equivalent carbon sinks makes a mockery of the Costa Rican Government´s claims of taking 2.3 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Even worse, in the Costa Rican context, it appears that there have been many interests behind the “a que sembrás un árbol” campaign which have less to do with fighting climate change, and more to do with making profits. The organization Coecoceiba, the local branch of Friends of the Earth, claims that up to 70% of the trees planted in the campaign have been exotic species which grow quickly in plantations, as part of the transnational fruit companies´ regular operations. According to Coecoceiba, some of these trees will even be cut down within a few years, totally defeating the objective of providing lasting carbon sinks. In fact, the planting of such plantations is well known to have highly damaging socio-environmental effects across the planet.

None of these criticisms are particularly new. Controversies and scandals regarding early attempts by carbon offset companies to balance emissions via forestation programs were so well documented that contemporary enterprises like Climate Care consciously downplay the extent to which their schemes are dependent on tree planting. All this suggests that Costa Rica´s goal of going “carbon neutral” is based on highly disputed claims regarding the effectiveness of tree planting, that even the carbon offset companies which originally promoted them have now accepted as false. Civil society needs to be aware that the symbolic capital gained by governments and companies could easily be manipulated to distract from other environmentally destructive projects. Anyone wanting proof of this need look no further than Peru; one of the other presidents that responded to Maathai´s call for a billion trees was Alan Garcia.

Infinito Gold at Crucitas: Profits prevail over “peace with nature”

In Latin America, development-conservation dilemmas rarely come to the fore as assertively as with extractive industries. Across the region, mining and oil operations represent huge sources of revenues, yet have had disastrous impacts on natural habitats and local communities. Costa Ricans need look no further than the Bellavista mine, which the Canadian multinational Glencairn Gold Corporation abandoned in 2007, leaving behind a socio-environmental wreck. Such dangers had prompted the previous administration of Abel Pacheco to bravely ban mining and oil activities in the country ( the license for Bellavista already had been awarded). Although President Arias has maintained the ban on oil exploration, he also signed a decree allowing open-pit mining in April 2008, insisting that a proposed mining project by Canadian Company Infinito Gold at Crucitas, was “in the public interest.” While the mine is estimated to contain 700,000 ounces of gold, Heydi Murillo, President of the Conservationist Federation (FECON), claims that the project will entail the cutting of 115,000 trees, and the expected use of cyanide is certain to threaten local water resources. Not only that, Arias even signed a decree allowing Infinito to log trees, including protected species, as part of the protest.

Most worrisome of all, in November he vetoed an effort by Congress to give local communities the right to squash projects harmful to their interests. For Javier Baltodano Aragón of Coecoceiba, all this proves that Arias´ rhetoric about “peace with nature” and carbon neutrality amount to a dangerous tautology which is little better than a “double discourse.” Relations between the Government and some environmental organizations are today so bad that FECON actually held a street party to celebrate the resignation of the Minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications, Roberto Dobles. The Crucitas mine project has even exposed fault-lines within the epicenter of the Government, with the director of the “Peace with Nature” initiative vainly calling for a moratorium on mining activities in November. Given that El Salvador´s new FMLN Government has taken the far bolder step of banning mining outright, it may be time to question whether Costa Rica remains at the epicenter of environmental protection in Central America.

Bold Alliance or Cynical Marketing? Bringing the Private Sector Onboard

There was a time when environmentalists assumed that the private sector would prove the most resistant to policies aimed at combating climate change. After all, private companies generally have the greatest stake in perpetuating a high carbon, high consumption economic regimen. One needs to look no further than the USA to see the lengths that major oil companies have been prepared to go to hide, obstruct and obscure the public´s understanding of the risk posed by climate change. Such an image, though, is fast becoming outdated; most companies now accept the reality of climate change, and claim to be at the forefront of efforts to combat it. Moreover, many environmentalists, would agree with former Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres that “we will only manage to defend the environment if we turn it into good business.” Traditionally, Costa Rica´s model of environmental protection has been very much an alliance with private sector interests rather than an alienation of them. This can be seen, for example, in the country´s extensive eco-tourism sector, and its enthusiasm for international initiatives like Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and payments for environmental services. Now more than ever, the country is full of local and foreign companies claiming to have gone “carbon neutral.” So when we see that multinational companies such as the Dole Food Company are enthusiastically signing up behind Costa Rica´s carbon neutral policy, should we see it as a sign of fundamental, pragmatic change, or as a clear case of “greenwash” by a transnational company which in fact has no demonstrable interest in the environment, but every interest in projecting a “green” marketing image?

Dole Cashes in on “Carbon Neutral”

On August 9, 2007, Dole, which claims to be the “world´s largest producer and marketer of high-quality fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and fresh-cut flowers”, announced that it would go carbon neutral in Costa Rica. Its subsidiary, Standard Fruit de Costa Rica, currently exports 44 million bananas annually from the county, and claims that from now on, these activities will have a net neutral effect on the environment. Whether or not this is actually possible brings us right back to the issue of offsets. While Dole claims to be mixing a strategy of offsetting with mitigation (via better transportation methods, increased energy efficiency), offsets via tree planting clearly form a major part of its claim to be going “carbon neutral”. Under an agreement signed with the Ministry of Environment, Dole will purchase certificates to offset the emissions produced by land transportation of the company´s bananas and pineapples up to the point of export. In addition, the company explains how it is extending a company program to reforest and plant trees on company property. The problems of this are clear: Dole´s claims to be “carbon neutral” in Costa Rica are almost entirely based on the highly questionable strategy of “offsetting.” Moreover, Baltodano points out that Dole´s claims of going “carbon neutral” do not take into account the emissions caused by external transportation, deforestation or the use of agro-chemicals in fruit production. In fact, there is nothing in Dole´s literature which actually states how it is going to significantly reduce emissions. Despite these failings, though, the company will be able to put the “carbon neutral” sticker on its fruits, and thereby gain commercial advantages from presenting itself as a “green” company.

Nature Air: Third World Innovation or a new level of “Greenwashing”?

As previously mentioned, Costa Rica´s passion for carbon neutrality did not start with President Arias. Its private sector have long claimed to be at the vanguard of attempts to reduce or compensate for carbon emissions. The most notable example of this is Nature Air, the only airplane company in the world which claims to be carbon neutral. The promise is tantalizing; everyone, including nature lovers, likes travelling by plane periodically, and it often seems one of the few polluting activities that even the most committed of environmentalists are not prepared to jettison. While the airplane industry contributes to just 3 percent of world emissions, this figure is still significant given that even in 2009, only a minority of the world´s population are at all likely to use planes on a regular basis, and in any event, the industry’s emissions are expected to rise significantly in the coming decades. Sadly, it goes without saying that Nature Air´s “carbon neutral” claims are as highly dependent on tree growth and protection as Dole´s. By buying certificates from the government, the company claims to be protecting over 500 acres of tropical forest, in this way offsetting 6,000 tons of carbon emissions annually. Beyond that, Nature Air has helped develop Costa Rica´s first alternative fuelling station, and fuels all ground activities with biofuels. Finally, it also claims to have increased its fuel efficiency by 7 percent in just 3 years. However, it is hard to describe such measures as anything other than gimmicks. The company claims that 160 CO2 emissions are avoided through a reliance on bio-fuels, a minimal amount compared to the 6000 tons of carbon “offset” via forest protection schemes. Of course, this figure of 6,000 tons a year is in itself highly open to question. As well as all of the previously mentioned problems of using trees as offsets, the figure could only be legitimate if we were to assume that without Nature Air´s contribution, the 500 acres under its protection would have been immediately deforested.

Conclusion: Too many things to be skeptical about

It is rare that one hears genuinely positive news regarding global warming, and it is extremely tempting to hold Costa Rica up as a model for the world to follow (as did the prestigious New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman). Undoubtedly, there are many well intentioned individuals within the Costa Rican Government and society and in the private sector who generally believe that “carbon neutrality” is a viable goal, and that planting millions of trees this year does genuinely offset the damage done by emissions in other sectors of the economy. Moreover, Costa Rica´s efforts to protect its natural habitat and to engage in an initiative involving climate change mean that it does indeed stand out ahead of other governments in the Americas. Its mobilization of its own society in support of “peace with nature,” its bravery in prohibiting oil exploration, and its protection of its tropical forest are all necessary elements of a strong developing country’s international strategy of response to climate change. It may even be the case that its desire to publicize itself as supporting “peace with nature” actually gives its society stronger tools with which to challenge what have to be seen as environmentally destructive projects. Finally, it goes without saying that whether it is carbon neutral or not, Costa Rica´s ecological impact, given the nation’s limited resources and small size, remains negligible, and it cannot be held responsible for playing a major role in global warming.

However, the idea that it is actually going to become “carbon neutral” is highly dubious, and needs to be challenged strongly by its own civil society and academic and research institutes. Far too many of the projects in which it is engaged are based on the extensive planting of trees. For all of the reasons outlined in this essay, it is highly doubtful that such schemes actually can end up offsetting emissions in the way the government says they do. At a global level, it simply defies logic to suggest that fossil fuel emissions could be offset by tree-cultivating or even by any other means. Larry Lohman, founder of the Durban Group for Climate Justice, goes as far as to claim that “attempting to absorb the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels still in the ground would require additional planets full of trees.”

Although Costa Rica can be proud of preventing oil exploration, its constant trumpeting of offset programs send out a totally contradictory message: that companies can be considered “green” just because they participate in such initiatives, regardless of whether they actually realize any emissions reductions. The broader impact of this could be that transnational companies seek to exploit Costa Rica´s environmental reputation to take part in offsetting projects, in order to gain prestige as “clean” companies and thereby increase their own market competiveness without fundamentally restructuring their operations or assuming any additional costly obligations. Moreover, the idea of offsets could be telling society a dangerous lie: that current consumption patterns are sustainable, and that businesses can continue more or less normally. This idea is highly contrary to the real goal, which should be to permanently shift the world economy away from its addiction to fossil fuels. As Lohman has made very clear, the danger embedded in the “carbon neutral” concept is that it allows major polluting companies to tinker around the edges of their operations, and claim to offset their emissions, thereby gaining enough political and environmental capital to avoid making substantial, genuine reductions that would clearly involve more of a commitment than they are now prepared to make.