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Costa Rica and New Zealand on Path to Carbon Neutrality
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While some of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) hem and haw about how to--or even if to--limit their contributions to climate change, at least two small countries are blazing trails for the world to follow. Both Costa Rica and New Zealand have declared over the past several months their intentions to become carbon neutral. Together, they accounted for about 0.15 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, according to the World Bank.

In May 2007, Costa Rica's government announced it was drawing up plans to reduce net GHG emissions to zero before 2030. The country aims to reduce emissions from transport, farming, and industry, and to clean up its fossil fuel power plants, which account for 4 percent of the country's electricity (of the rest, 78 percent comes from hydropower and 18 percent from wind and geothermal power). In addition, through an innovative program begun in 1997 and funded by a gas tax, the government compensates landowners for growing trees to absorb carbon while protecting watersheds and wildlife habitat. Costa Rica aims to be the first country to become carbon neutral.

But Costa Rica could be in a race with New Zealand, which last month set the target of becoming "the first truly sustainable nation on earth." Prime Minister Helen Clark announced in a speech on September 20 that her country will adopt an economy-wide program to reduce all GHG emissions, with different economic sectors being gradually introduced into a national emissions trading program that should be in effect fully by 2013. Other commitments include an increase in renewable electricity to 90 percent by 2025 (up from 70 percent today), a major net increase in forest area, widespread introduction of electric vehicles, and a 50 percent reduction in transport-related emissions by 2040.

These two nations represent only a small share of the world's emissions. But as New Zealand's Clark said last month, "We are neither an economic giant nor a global superpower.... If we want to influence other countries and the responses they take in coming years and decades, then we must take action ourselves. Taking action is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do."

Janet L. Sawin is a senior researcher and the director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Worldwatch Institute.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Image credit: flickr/Sami Keinaenen

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The agricultural sector accounts for about 49% of New Zealand's GHG emissions. NZ is both GE and nuclear free so it seems unlikely that Helen Clark will be able to produce a nuclear powered, methane free cow anytime soon. In 2003 the Government tried to make farmers contribute towards the costs of research into their methane pollution. In response 400 farmers with 20 tractors and several cows protested outside Parliament and ridiculed the measure as a "fart tax". (It is in fact a burp tax). Helen Clark backed down.

New Zealand is also busy exporting coal to other countries. This activity is operated and managed by a state owned enterprise. ie Helen Clark is the boss.

In 2007-2008 the NZ Government has doubled its spending on roads to $1.7b and Michael Cullen, the Finance Minister, boasted that "we have started the largest road building programme this country has ever seen, at least since the nineteenth century". The Regional Land Transport Strategy for Auckland (the largest urban area) shows planned vehicle kilometers rising from 3.7 million per annum in 2005 to 4.6 million in 2016 and the 10 year transport budget of $11 billion is split 64% to roading versus 36% for public transport.

Helen Clark became Prime Minister in 1999. In May 2005 New Zealand’s liability in the First Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008-12) was estimated at 36.2 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2-e. In December 2005, following a review of climate change policies, the quantum was revised to 64 Mt. This reflected the Government’s decision not to proceed with the planned carbon tax, as well as a revision to deforestation estimates.In May 2006 the annual revision to the quantum produced an estimate of 41.2 Mt. the drop was due to a significant change in estimates of deforestation. In June 2007 the annual revision to the quantum produced an estimate of 45.5 Mt. Last time I looked the Government's plan was to outsource this liability by contributing to GHG reduction projects in other countries.

The facts suggest that the Government's track record on carbon neutrality is poor and that Helen Clark's speech is a "make a wish" piece of political grandstanding. Still, we wouldn't want to let the facts get in the way of a feel good story would we?

Posted by: Kublai Kahn on 10 Nov 07

Kublai Kahn is largely correct. However it should be born in mind that it has taken ten years to double spending on roads. This has happened only because petrol taxes have been doubled. And the global construction price index has increased by 40% during that time. Hence Cullen's brag is true only for the amount of money being spent, not for the amount of work being done. Same problem with Clark's rhetoric.

To put the problem in perspective, the anticipated increase in traffic (3.7bn vkt to 4.6bn) is half the growth rate of the last two decades. Due mainly to demographic changes especially baby boomers reaching retirement age and no longer commuting.

Posted by: Kevyn Miller on 11 Nov 07



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