Photo credit: Rafael Murillo, Courtesy Congress SEE - Photo: 2018

Costa Rica Set to Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2021

By Fabiola Ortiz

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (IDN) – It has been twenty two years since Costa Rica embarked on its national program of payment for environmental services (PES), the first in the world to start a nationwide scheme for compensating landowners for keeping the forests standing for people and the planet.

Now that the world struggles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global temperature rise by the end of the century, this Central American nation of five million people has served as an example of public policies addressing the taxation of fossil fuels in favour of the protection of nature. The country pledges to become carbon neutral by 2021.

“We expected that the developed countries would provide financial support to developing nations in order to protect natural resources. However, no backing has been offered whatsoever,”, the general director of Costa Rica’s National Forest Finance Fund (FONAFIFO) told IDN:

International funds such as the Green Climate Fund are difficult to access, complained Rodriguez. “Costa Rica is among the first five countries with a national carbon emission reduction strategy and there has not yet been a single country willing to partner with us and help with funds,” criticised Rodriguez during the first Latin American Congress on Sustainability, Ecology and Evolution (SEE) held from September 26 to 29, 2018 in San Jose. A special panel discussed Costa Rican experience in paying for ecological services.

Hosting 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, Costa Rica has more than half of its territory covered with forests and champions 350 days a year powered by renewable sources.

Its past was not that bright and sustainable though. In the1980s, the country was on the brink of an environmental crisis reaching high rates of deforestation – around 70,000 hectares a year, the equivalent to 1.7 percent of the national territory.

The country’s forest cover currently accounts for 52,4 percent of its territory. Back in 1987, it was only 21 percent. On the trail of the Rio Summit in 1992, Costa Rica started a pioneer initiative by creating in 1996 the PES within the new Forest Act that criminalised the change of land use – if a property was covered by forest, it would be illegal to clear the land for cattle ranching or growing monoculture.

The PES was a way of rewarding small and medium landowners for the ecosystem services their forests provided, such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity preservation and protection of water springs.

The lack of international funds boosted Costa Rica’s U-turn when the country taxed the fossil fuels consumption. It had been the first time in the world that a country created a special tariff for the use of gasoline to finance forestry recovery.

After two decades, the gasoline tax resulted in an amount of US$ 500 million that had been transferred to protect 1,250,000 hectares, nearly one fourth of Costa Rica’s territory.

Every year FONAFIFO receives requests of around 180,000 hectares to benefit from the PES. Hitherto, the Fund is able to commit to protecting only 50,000 hectares a year due to budgetary constraints.

“The PES program has been strengthened every year. The change in the mindset reflects the country’s vision, it is a shift in the paradigm,” emphasised. Rodriguez.

One third of the properties that benefit from the PES are companies, cooperatives and associations; another third comprehend indigenous territories that account for 340,000 hectares.

The payment scheme can contribute significantly to Costa Rica meeting its target of carbon neutrality in three years, suggested experts at the environmental congress. Growing the forest cover plays a fundamental role for the reduction of emissions.

The country emits 21,6 million tons of CO2 and wishes to cut 19 percent and compensate the rest of its emissions.

René Castro-Salazar, the assistant-director general of the Climate, Biodiversity, Land and Water Department of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and former Costa Rica’s minister of Environment told IDN that the PES may help other developing countries to implement the Paris Agreement.

“At that time when we launched the program, it was very difficult to measure the carbon sequestration. We had to use airplanes; nowadays it is possible to calculate with satellite and new technologies. It took us the first time over a year and a half, and now the analysis can take only a week,” explained Castro-Salazar who was responsible for implementing the payment schemes for environmental services in Costa Rica, and who was in charge of the first carbon transaction in the world.

“Countries like Mexico are now developing a PES of their own that has evolved from Costa Rican experience. It is more sophisticated and includes categories such as communal properties owned by peasants (campesinos) or indigenous tribes,” he said.

In Castro-Salazar’s opinion, the PES is not about subsidising but rewarding who takes care of the biological diversity and hinders illegal logging and clearing the forest.

“Costa Rica has deeply changed in the last decade,” agreed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rican minister of Environment and Energy in his opening speech at the congress.

“However, we still have a negative environmental footprint per capita costing around five per cent of our national GDP (gross domestic product). We can only change that by having a new model of consumption and production,” he maintained. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 October 2018]

Photo credit: Rafael Murillo, Courtesy Congress SEE

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Tags: Latin America & the Caribbean, SDG12, SDG13, UN Insider

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