Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Costa Rica Promotes Greener Air Travel

SAN JOSÉ, Dec 15 2008 (IPS) - Every air traveler to or from Costa Rica may be paying the government five dollars per ton of carbon dioxide produced by the flight. The funds will be earmarked for conserving and reforesting the country's jungles.

The beach of Manuel Antonio Park, on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. - Diana Cariboni/IPS

The beach of Manuel Antonio Park, on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. - Diana Cariboni/IPS

Costa Rica is hoping for a big jump in its Clean Trips (Viajes Limpios) program, which allows air passengers to offset the climate-changing gas emissions from their airplane flights by paying for activities that preserve the country's forests.

By mid-November, 617 people (210 Costa Ricans and 407 foreigners) had compensated for the carbon emissions created from their trips. The initiative has been in place for just over a year.

The program, part of the pioneering Payment for Environmental Services, consists of a voluntary payment of five dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere during an international flight to or from Costa Rica.

One can also donate directly up to 2,560 dollars, making an electronic payment through the National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO), which is in charge of the problem.

On FONAFIFO's web site, each passenger can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by his or her flight. For example, someone traveling to Chile from San José would produce three tons of carbon dioxide, so would pay 15 dollars to offset it.

That money goes towards reforesting and conserving the forests of Costa Rica, a country rich in biological diversity. The circle is completed with the carbon dioxide captured by the trees, which mitigate climate change.

Alberto García, head of FONAFIFO resource management, told Tierramérica that thanks to the 617 passengers participating in the program, “10,825 dollars were collected, which means that 125 hectares were reforested.”

The initiative is linked to the Voluntary Carbon Market, in parallel with international mechanisms agreed under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Although it is in its experimental stages in this country, it has seen rapid growth worldwide, as an alternative for companies or individuals who want to compensate for the carbon emissions their activities create.

Unlike the carbon market schemes under the Kyoto Protocol, which establish “certified emission reductions” (CERs), the voluntary market authorizes “verified emissions reductions” (VERs).

There are various voluntary markets being developed, but there is no oversight body that regulates compliance with trade and quality standards of the VERs.

The 125 hectares reforested as a result of Viajes Limpios are distributed among eight projects, which will mitigate 2,165 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

That volume is tiny, but there are enormous hopes for next year. “Being very conservative, we hope that at least five percent of air travelers will take part in this program,” García said.

In the past year, 1.9 million tourists visited Costa Rica, so the participation total could reach 95,000 people. But the goals are likely to change because a 30-percent decline in tourism is predicted as a result of the global economic crisis.

This year, Payment for Environmental Services affected 58,000 hectares. Since 1997, when the program was created, 8,000 landowners have included more than 600,000 hectares, generating some 180 million dollars.

“The resources go to the areas of the country with least social and economic development,” said García.

The activities that are paid for include reforestation, for which the landowner receives 816 dollars per hectare for the five year duration of the program, and for protecting the forest, for which the owner is paid 64 dollars per year per hectare.

Through FONAFIFO, the government pays the landowners, who then are entrusted with carrying out the environmental services.

The idea is to protect virgin forests on private land: 87 percent of the funds are for conservation and 13 percent for reforestation, forest management, and natural regeneration.

According to FONAFIFO, in 2008, 6,000 hectares in economically depressed areas were reforested under this program, most with exotic species that can later be harvested and sold.

Costa Rican officials will promote Viajes Limpios through an agreement with the Costa Rican Travel Agencies Association, which will inform passengers of the program and will provide details for carrying out the emissions calculations and payment in an electronic ticket.

Also participating are the Costa Rican Tourism Institute and the National Chamber of Tourism, and efforts are under way to bring the National Chamber of Ecological Tourism on board as well.

We want “80 to 90 percent of tourists 'clean up' their travel,” Seidy Ruiz, of the climate change strategy office at the Costa Rican Environment Ministry, told Tierramérica.

But environmentalists are not very happy with this type of initiative.

“We oppose voluntary carbon markets because there is no regulatory body. There is an estimate about how much carbon a tree captures, in addition to a highly inexact methodology, with a 40 to 60 percent degree of uncertainty,” biologist Javier Baldotano, of La Ceiba Ecologist Communities-Friends of the Earth Costa Rica, told Tierramérica.

Furthermore, this is how “we begin to create the embryo of the privatization of nature,” he added. “It's the idea that I can pollute a common good as long as I pay for it.”

In Baldotano's opinion, it would be better “to promote a structural change that leads to a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, instead of taking part in the game of offsets.”

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