2 Countries Reveal How Divided the World Is on Climate Change

Our planet’s future climate depends on the actions of countries big and small. Some are aggressively cutting greenhouse gases while others lag behind.

Costa Rica, known for its white-sand beaches and cloud-draped forests, is a meager contributor to global climate change. Its largest provider of electricity, which relies almost entirely on hydropower, can go months without burning any fossil fuels. Yet, despite its miniscule role in warming the climate, this Central American country is among the nations trying hardest to curb greenhouse gases.

An ocean away, Australia is another story. This coal-rich nation spews more CO2 per capita than almost every other country, putting it nearly on par with the United States. But Australia lacks Costa Rica's ambition, and its carbon-cutting goal is less aggressive than the U.S. government’s.

The tale of these two countries half a world apart highlights an often-overlooked reality: Slowing the relentless pace of climate change requires action by more than just the global juggernauts of the United States, China, and India. And as 195 nations and the 28 member-states of the European Union descend on Paris beginning Nov. 30 to try to lock down the first global agreement to curb CO2, some countries are doing much better than others.

Rather than bask in its clean-energy good fortune, Costa Rica is hoping to become carbon-neutral; it’s debating a vehicle carbon tax as part of a plan to get rid of high-polluting cars. Australia, on the other hand, isn't even reducing CO2 as aggressively as its own climate agency has urged, and its former prime minister repealed its carbon tax last year. The difference is as much about history as politics: After decades of bold conservation efforts, Costa Rica’s government is quick to embrace many environmental causes. But in Australia, coal is such a dominant part of its economy and heritage that proponents of fossil fuels drive much of the climate debate, and its politics have been tumultuous in recent years,  in part because of the seesawing of its prime ministers over global warming.

Costa Rica’s CO2 emissions, at 7 million metric tons a year in 2012, are a fraction of those from Australia, which emitted 391 million metric tons that year, according to the World Resources Institute. In comparison, China spewed orders of magnitude more: 9.3 billion metric tons.

With two-thirds of emissions now coming from just 10 countries, it's no wonder all eyes are on the world's superpowers and super-polluters. But nearly 150 other nations, including Gulf oil states such as the United Arab Emirates, already have pledged to curb carbon in the buildup to the UN negotiations. And after two decades of failure on international climate policy, that is widely considered progress.

"In some ways, Paris is already a success," says Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' chief climate-policy advocate. "Almost 90 percent of the world's current emissions are covered by countries that have put forward commitments to curb them."

Yet these pledges are nowhere near enough to halt a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature to stave off global warming's worst impacts. "The trends are going in the right direction," Meyer says. "But we're racing against time, and we need to pick up the pace."

Climate negotiators know this well. Before heads of state even arrive in France, negotiators are trying to persuade them to strengthen their plans even more. And tracking the social, economic, and political forces shaping smaller players like Costa Rica and Australia can bring insight, hope – and, perhaps, some surprises.

Costa Rica charts its own path

Even in the congested concrete jungle of Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, it's hard to escape talk of climate change. "It was very dramatic the last year," says Giselle Ulate, who works in the credit card department of a bank. "It was hot, and we got no rain in the north." Even urbanites remain keenly aware of the threats to their country's natural bounty.

Costa Rica, with a population of nearly 5 million, many of them poor, relies heavily on the landscape, whether for exports of coffee, sugar, and bananas or for their most significant import–eco-tourists. Visitors come to see the volcanoes and rainforests, the sea turtles, sloths, howler monkeys, and the rainbow-feathered macaws. But rising temperatures and erratic rainfall are changing Ulate's homeland, disrupting coffee harvests, pushing dryland plants and animals up damp mountains, and shifting homes for everything from toucans to poisonous snakes.

"People in general are concerned," Ulate says. "But Costa Rica is so tiny, what can we do?"

That helplessness drove the country in the mid-2000s to get assertive on climate. At the time, the world's focus was on China and India, neither of which had been taking aggressive steps. "We weren't important enough to be relevant, and we weren't poor enough to be taken seriously," says Monica Araya, founder of Nivela, a Costa Rica-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable development in Latin America. "We wanted to tell the world that little economies matter."

Costa Rica, a republic with multiple political parties, a legislative assembly, and a president with far less authority than that of most Latin American leaders, has long been known for bold moves. It abolished its military in the late 1940s, and established an unprecedented network of parks and wildlands in the 1970s, which made it a model for other countries. Following a bitter fight over the ecological destruction that could accompany a new highway linking San Jose to a Caribbean port, the country compromised in 1978: It built the road but also created the adjacent Braulio Carrillo National Park. Costa Rica also taxed gasoline and borrowed from the World Bank to pay farmers to stop destroying forests. As tourism took off in Costa Rica in the 1990s, many citizens accepted that investing in nature was just good business.

Costa Rica tapped that civic pride in 2007 and announced its intention to reduce net carbon output to zero by making sure its emissions do not exceed the carbon taken up by its forests. It had a head start. Ireland, with a similar size population, emits five times more CO2. (The U.S. spews 700 times more.) Costa Rica was blessed with vast carbon stores in its trees and abundant clean energy. Nearly 56 percent of its electricity comes from hydropower, but it also turns to geothermal energy from volcanoes as well as solar and wind. The country had hoped to reach its carbon-neutral goal by its bicentennial year – 2021.

In recent years, however, reality stepped in. A detailed inventory showed the forests stored less carbon than expected. And rising incomes had brought a new problem: Between 1993 and 2014, the number of cars jamming the country's central valley doubled to more than 1 million. The number of motorcycles exploded.

"It's the elephant in the room," says Pascal Girot, climate coordinator for Costa Rica's energy ministry. "Transportation is driving our emissions, but you don't mess with people's cars – even here."

Costa Ricans spend 14 days a year in traffic, according to a new study. Ulate, the San Jose resident, says fewer people take buses because they don’t arrive on time. Her teenagers spend an hour on a school bus to travel 10 miles. Shocked tourists now complain about clogged roads. And all this idling boosts emissions by almost one-third.

The country now concedes it will probably blow past its 2021 carbon-neutral goal. Emissions may even creep up. But rather than give in, Costa Rica is leveraging traffic's effect on lives and business.

The country is developing plans and seeking outside financing for a massive electric commuter train through its urban core. It is adding buses, proposing bike lines, and trying to offer a buyback program to junk older, dirtier vehicles. It is considering  a carbon tax with high rates for older cars, and some lawmakers want to jumpstart a countrywide move to electric vehicles.

"Everyone knows this is one of our biggest challenges," says Girot. "If we don't act, it will be worse later and cost more."

Will it work? Some citizens don't trust their government's capacity to overhaul the transportation system, but agree it must try. "We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world," Ulate says. "We need to protect it."

Australia's odd CO2 politics

Across the Pacific, rising temperatures spread punishing brushfires into the Outback and hammer Australia's lemon farmers and cattle ranchers. Warmer waters and acidifying oceans threaten to suffocate the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef and one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders.

Yet this arid continent's role as a top coal-miner to the world maintains an outsized influence on its politics. Voting in Australia is mandatory, though fines are small, and some political observers say that pushes its Parliament candidates and issues toward the center. But coal is booming, and the industry has made clear its hopes to remain a major source for Asia and the world for decades to come.

"Coal has played a big role in Australia's history; there's a certain level of pride," says Erwin Jackson, with the Climate Institute, a research and advocacy group in Sydney. "But the public overwhelmingly supports climate action, and the government closed its eyes to the risk just as the world moved in the other direction."

As big as the continental United States but with fewer people than Texas, Australia's economy is the world's 12th largest, according to the World Bank. Its per capita gross domestic product is more than six times that of Costa Rica’s. The country is experiencing a natural gas boom, most of which is exported. Some gas is even shipped to China to supply cleaner energy, while at home Australia still gets nearly three times more electricity from coal (61 percent) than gas (22 percent). Use of oil for transportation is on the rise, and the country maintains some of the developing world's least stringent vehicle emissions standards.

This year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2030. (The United States has pledged to reach the same target five years earlier.) But an independent analysis suggests Australia's existing policies – one scientist dubbed them "messier than a teenager's bedroom" – can’t achieve that goal and might actually cause emissions to rise. The government's own independent climate authority deemed Abbott's plan "not a credible contribution," labeling it "at or near the bottom of the group of countries we generally compare ourselves with," including the United States and Canada. The climate authority recommended cuts of 45 to 63 percent.

Still, Australia's future on climate policy is hard to predict. Jackson says some segments of the business community are increasingly frustrated by inaction. The country's national science agency this month unveiled a major report concluding that strong global action on CO2 would bring Australia substantial economic benefits. Thanks to subsidies and plummeting prices, one in every seven homes now uses rooftop solar – the world's highest per capita use, by one estimate.

"Climate policy has been a really vexed issue for us – more so than in most countries," says Cathy Alexander, research fellow in sustainability at the University of Melbourne. "It's been the third rail, politically. The public is somewhat baffled."

Climate policy has played a significant role in the ouster of at least three prime ministers in recent years, she says. Prime Minister John Howard lost an election in 2007 in part because voters felt he lagged behind on climate. His successor, Kevin Rudd, promised aggressive action, which he couldn’t deliver, leading to an internal push to replace him. Prime Minister Julia Gillard then lost her job in part because she pushed for a carbon tax after suggesting she wouldn’t. Last year, Abbott, who once dismissed climate change as "crap," repealed the carbon tax.

Then, two months ago, Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, who previously lost a party leadership post for being too eager to take climate action. Turnbull has been slow to signal what new direction he may take. But the French ambassador to Australia recently called his ascendance good news for the planet.

<p>A diver swims above a garden of stony corals on the Great Barrier Reef, which is more than 1,250 miles long. Climate change poses a multitude of threats to this international treasure.</p>

A diver swims above a garden of stony corals on the Great Barrier Reef, which is more than 1,250 miles long. Climate change poses a multitude of threats to this international treasure.

Photograph by David Doubilet, Nat Geo Image Collection

"Australia is at a cross-roads on climate," Alexander says. "We may see a shift from being at the back of the pack to being more in the center. It's just a question of when."

Both Australia and Costa Rica are searching to find a way forward. But they’re not alone. In Canada, for example, a new prime minister elected this fall may transform that nation’s climate policy. And many climate scientists and policy advocates are watching the U.S. presidential election to see if Barack Obama’s successor continues efforts to curb emissions – or upends them.

As negotiators in Paris push for even more stringent curbs on emissions, small countries can play a larger role than many suspect. Aggressive action by countries that bear little responsibility for the climate problem can show other small countries what is possible – while shaming larger countries into doing more.

Perhaps even more importantly, a few small countries can kickstart a trend that spreads around the globe. A commitment to renewable energy by Denmark and Germany helped drive down costs for solar power technology, making it more affordable in much of the world. (Read more about Germany’s energy revolution.)

“The argument that small countries can’t do anything just does not hold,” says Niklas Hohne, founding partner with Germany’s NewClimate Institute, which tracks international negotiations. “If they do the right thing, they can make a big difference.”

Follow Craig Welch on Twitter.

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