Costa Rica is hoping for a big jump in its Clean Trips (Viajes Limpios) programme, 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 generated by their airplane travel. The initiative has been in place for just over a year.

The programme, 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.

People can also directly donate up to 2,560 dollars, making an electronic payment through the National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO).

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 resource management in FONAFIFO, told Tierramérica that thanks to the 617 passengers who have participated in the programme, “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 still 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 generated by their activities.

Unlike the carbon market schemes under the Kyoto Protocol, which establish “certified emission reductions” (CERs), the voluntary market authorises “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 big hopes for next year. “Being very conservative, we hope that at least five percent of air travelers will take part in the programme,” García said.

In the past year, 1.9 million tourists visited Costa Rica, so total participation could possibly 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 programme was created, 8,000 landowners have included more than 600,000 hectares, generating some 180 million dollars.

“The funds go to the areas of the country with the lowest levels of social and economic development,” said García.

The activities covered by the funds include reforestation, for which the landowner receives 816 dollars per hectare for the five-year duration of the programme, 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 are then entrusted with providing the environmental services.

The idea is to protect pristine forests on privately-owned land, with 87 percent of the funds going towards conservation and 13 percent to reforestation, forest management, and the natural recovery of forests.

According to FONAFIFO, in 2008, 6,000 hectares in economically depressed areas were reforested under the programme, most of them 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 programme 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 to ‘clean up’ their travel,” Seidy Ruiz, of the climate change strategy office at the Costa Rican Environment Ministry, told Tierramérica.

But environmentalists are not happy with this type of initiative.

“We oppose voluntary carbon markets because there is no regulatory body. There is an estimate on 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 Ecological Communities-Friends of the Earth Costa Rica, told Tierramérica.

Furthermore, this is how “we begin to create the embryo of the privatisation 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.”

(This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) (END/2008)