Costa Rica changes the world

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The Costa Rican government is on a mission. But unlike the missions often associated with Latin American governments–self enrichment, appeasement of American interests, populist pro-poor policies–this mission is uncontroversially noble. The mission is to become the first carbon neutral country in the world.

At first glance, this goal is thoroughly surprising. With a GDP per capita of $12,500, Costa Rica is not poor. However the United States and other Western European powers are about four times as rich and most are not doing as much for domestic carbon emissions, despite having much higher current levels and more available resources to fight the problem. Costa Rica, meanwhile, levies taxes on gasoline, promotes renewable energy, and spends $15 million each year in subsidies for tree farms. In other words, the rhetoric and ideology are backed by action and sacrifice.

When I travelled to Costa Rica, I was struck by a big “Carbon Neutral” sticker on a small, 18-seater commercial plane. I’ve taken many Delta flights and not once seen or read any evidence of carbon consciousness. And here this tiny regional carrier is doing more.

Basic economic theory would predict the opposite result. Costa Rica, with merely 4 million people in a 7 billion person world, has no incentive to reduce emissions. Their efforts, while personally costly, will have no measurable effect on global warming.

The proclaimed reason for going neutral, according to journalists and the Costa Rican government, is to attract more eco-tourists, wealthy Americans and Europeans who like traveling to Costa Rica because of the rich wildlife and well preserved forests. However I don’t believe that tourists really care if the country is carbon neutral. It’s not something to base a vacation on.

I think a stronger interpretation is that the government wants to make a splash and influence world politics. The New York Times has reported extensively that developing countries are bearing the largest costs of global warming. This is especially true of Costa Rica, with its coveted forests. If Costa Rica can go neutral, it begs the question: why can’t we? Why did we dodge Kyoto? Why aren’t we pushing harder and setting an example? Are we being shown up by Costa Rica? If we start asking these questions and try to curb our own emissions, Costa Rica’s strategy will have paid off.

Another interpretation is that Costa Rica cares more about the environment for its own sake, rather than economic benefit. I met a 22-year old Costa Rican kid and we got to talking politics. On U.S. election candidates, he said “you just gotta figure out which one is best for the environment and vote for him.” That’s a lot of consciousness for a 22-year old kid with high school education. Makes you wonder if the U.S. is so advanced after all.

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