Kick Back, Relax, Offset Your CO2

With global climate talks stuck in a stalemate, several countries have made unilateral commitments to slash their greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Since 2007, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Tuvalu, Bhutan, and The Maldives have committed to going carbon neutral, and the race is on to see which nation can meet the milestone first. It appears that Costa Rica, the first country to make the zero-emissions pledge, is poised to win the “Carbon-Neutral World Cup.” But the small Central American nation’s difficulties in hitting that mark show that making a carbon neutral pledge is much easier than fulfilling one.

image showing a jet flying past a palm treephoto Adam Baker

Costa Rica enjoys some natural advantages in its effort to go carbon neutral. The country generates more than 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric dams. Costa Rica also boasts a sweeping reforestation program. Nearly a quarter of its land is protected, the highest percentage in the world. Last year, after some foot dragging, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla released a plan for how the country can make its carbon-neutral dream a reality.

Even with Costa Rica’s impressive use of renewable energy, its fossil fuel use has increased over the past few years. The agriculture industry – particularly bananas, pineapples, and coffee – remains a huge energy-suck, primarily from the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Chinchilla’s plan focuses mainly on the energy and agriculture industries, as well as transportation.

But the president’s plan pays less attention to the emissions of Costa Rica’s tourism industry, which accounts for about 5 percent of the nation’s GDP. More than 2 million people visit the country a year, but the climate plan doesn’t include flights to and from the country.

“International flights to and from Costa Rica add 46 percent to the national carbon footprint,” says Jürgen Stein, vice president of the Costa Rican National Chamber of Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism. “This is something the whole world will run into.”

To help get Costa Rica closer to its zero-emissions goal, the chamber has launched what it calls the Climate Conscious Traveler program. “In this program, all the tourism players – hotels, tour operators, et cetera – will share in the cost of offsetting the carbon,” says Glenn Jampol, the ecotourism chamber’s president and owner of the Finca Rosa Blanca organic coffee plantation and ecolodge. Tourism companies participating in the program pay $5 per ton of CO2 for jet flights, with a typical offset for a traveling couple running $10 to $15. The Climate Conscious Traveler program offsets the emissions through FONAFIFO, a forestry fund that pays landowners to preserve existing forest and plant new trees. “The result of [FONAFIFO] is that in the last 20 years Costa Rica has increased its green coverage by more than 25 percent,” Jampol says. “I believe it is the only country in the world with this kind of ambitious program.”

While the country has been praised for its reforestation efforts, getting the Climate Conscious Traveler initiative off the ground has proven slower than expected. “Our [initial] goal is to offset 20 percent of all those flights. We reached 1 percent,” Stein says.

A partnership with the nation’s Tourism Ministry has helped. In 2011, Costa Rica launched a million-dollar “Gift of Happiness” campaign that trumpeted Costa Rica’s number one ranking in the Happy Planet Index (the US came in at number 114). The Tourism Ministry gave away trips to Costa Rica through social media, and granted trips to celebrities and others in the news who seemed to need a happiness boost. All of the Gift of Happiness travelers participated in the Climate Conscious Traveler’s emissions offset program. The 252 trips resulted in 504 tons of CO2 offset.

Stein wishes more companies would take part. “For me it’s disappointing,” he says. “It’s sad there’s no willingness to participate, especially the big companies that move hundreds of guests. It’s their responsibility to do something.”

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