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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?

Riding the boom of Costa Rica's middle class, automobile ownership in the past decade has gone from one car for every 10 Ticos to one in four, the study found.

A tough new traffic law, introduced at the end of 2008, could help cut auto pollution by restricting driving at key points of congestion in the San Jose area, but a series of legislative hurdles have slowed its implementation.

CO2neutral2021 proposes a host of alternatives, including an improved bus system, biofuels, electric cars and better urban planning to avoid car dependency. It also calls for the construction of an efficient electric railway, plans for which are already underway for the greater San Jose area, with almost a dozen international rail developers knocking on Costa Rica's door to carry it out.

“If Costa Rica is able to become a low-carbon economy ... it will bring significant economic benefits to the country,” said Roberto Jimenez, a recent Yale M.B.A. graduate who is the strategy manager of CO2neutral2021.

He said that reducing the number of gas-guzzling automobiles will cut down Costa Rica's need for foreign oil, which he stressed is fueling the country's inflation, which is among the highest in Latin America. He said it would also create jobs related to creating a greener economy.

President Oscar Arias appears to be aware of the rewards. In a September speech before the United Nations titled "It's cheaper to save the planet than to destroy it," he pressed countries to act now to slash carbon emissions and promote renewable energies.

“We don’t have 20, 40 or 60 years to radically change things. We have, at most, eight years,” Arias said at the summit, which was a warm-up for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December.

By the 2020s, Central America's treasured biological corridor could see pronounced effects by global warming, according to a recent study by the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean. The study, funded partly by United States Agency for International Development, suggested that forests will decline, wiping out thousands of plant and animal species.

Though skeptics and proponents alike doubt that the bold c-neutrality benchmark will be reached, most agree it is nonetheless important to lower emissions to try to make a difference. All eyes will be on Copenhagen to see if other nations choose to join the race.