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The race for carbon neutrality

Costa Rica wants to be the first country to go entirely carbon neutral. But do rising automobile emissions threaten that goal?

A man discards an old piece of furniture on a disused plot of land used as an illegal rubbish dump in San Jose, Costa Rica, Sept. 28, 2007. The government collaborated with environmental organizations to form a team of volunteers to clean and preserve their local environments in the fight against the effects of climatic change. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Long heralded as a tiny country with a tenacious commitment to bettering the environment, Costa Rica now intends to win the greenest of honors: to become the first country to go entirely carbon neutral by 2021.

From the northern Caribbean canals of Tortuguero to the lush southwest Osa Peninsula, going green has long been the mantra. The country's national tourism campaign slogan is "Costa Rica, no artificial ingredients." Nearly all the electricity consumed by Ticos is renewable, with as much as 80 percent generated by hydroelectric power

Lifting the country's entire CO2 footprint is widely seen as the next frontier — and Costa Rica isn't alone in this race. Other green Samaritans include Iceland, New Zealand and Norway.

However, a chorus of skeptics — including scientists, environmentalists and even some of the c-neutrality plan’s supporters — is chiming in about Costa Rica's chances. Though households are fueled by cleaner energy, Costa Rica's vehicles continue to guzzle gasoline. As automobile ownership booms, emissions are rising faster than they can be offset.

Costa Rica has focused much of its effort to remove its carbon footprint on growing forests, which capture CO2 naturally. Worldwide deforestation accounts for as much as 20 percent of global carbon emissions, according to Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization.

But Orlando Chinchilla, director of the National University’s Institute for Forestry Research and Services, thinks there simply is not going to be enough space remaining to grow vegetation needed to offset Costa Rica’s emissions.

"The whole country isn't going to be reforested. We need to leave room for houses and infrastructure, to plant crops like rice and beans, not to mention the African palm or pineapples,” Chinchilla said.

In the mid-1980s, forests covered about 20 percent of Costa Rica. Through robust reforestation and conservation projects, woods have sprawled to about 50 percent. In one of the programs, the government uses money collected from a gasoline tax to pay landowners to preserve trees on their property or plant new ones.

In the city, however, it's a different story. In the greater metropolitan area around San Jose, exhaust-spewing buses, cars and motorcycles battle for space along the potholed streets. These are the country's big polluters, accounting for as much as 70 percent of CO2 emissions, according to a recent study by, an NGO consisting of young Costa Rican professionals who seek to help steer the country toward its no-footprint goal.