In 2018 a total of 19 countries signed up to Zero Carbon Emissions with an ambitious aim to become carbon neutral before the second half of this century. They made a significant commitment to overhaul their economies, change the attitudes of their citizens and fundamentally remove their carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere in a concerted bid to tackle climate change.

But what about the countries that are already in the race? Who is the closest to becoming carbon neutral and are there any countries who already reached this goal?

The goal to become carbon neutral started almost 20 years ago at the beginning of this century and the countries who made actual, legislative commitments to starting their journey to carbon neutrality are, believe it or not, the ones who have progressed the most.

Back in the heady days of 2008 as the world lurched into the worst financial recession in living memory four nations were looking to the future. The countries that kicked off this contest to go green included Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Costa Rica. In 2008 at the annual meeting of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme these 4 made a commitment to completely change the way they do business and to bring it into step with a carbon neutral programme.

Renewables for Planet Earth – wildbluedot.com

As with any race there are outriders. The Vatican claimed to have won the title through its programme of reforestation in parts of Hungary. This claim, however, fell by the wayside as the programme failed to take off and the Vatican threatened to sue its partners.

Special mention must go to Bhutan; the tiny Bhuddist state nestled under its larger, more famous neighbour Tibet. Bhutan in fact, couldn’t even be considered to be part of this race because it is possibly the only country in the world that is in fact a carbon sink.

Bhutan also has a completely different approach to measuring its citizen’s happiness, choosing to base nation-state productivity on four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance as devised by its King: Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Long-term, real sustainability (i.e. sustainability that sustains nature, not development) is built into the very cultural fabric of Bhutan, it’s carefully woven through-out all of the country’s policies, including a law that decrees it its very constitution no less then 60% of the nations landmass must remain forested at all times. The actual figure in reality is closer to 75%. Just imagine if every country in the world had this law written into their constitution? We would be one huge, gigantic step closer towards solving climate change.

Bhutan

Bhutan is a very special case; the country even banned logging experts way back in 1999. Almost all of its electricity comes from hydroelectric power and its vast forests help it to absorb 3 times more carbon than it emits. It limits the number of tourists that can eneter with a $250 daily fee. Unfair to those who can’t afford it, but a practical response to the dangerous levels of CO2, pollution and development that unmitigated tourism can allow. In every way Bhutan places the environment at the top of it’s priorities, ensuring that its citizens share these same priorities whilst celebrating and respecting the beauty of their natural environment. The country has just 750,000 citizens and remains a green, undeveloped oasis sandwiched between the Asian giants of India and China: countries that developing at a breakneck speed.

So as a country that is already benefiting the rest of the planet, and all its other nations, we can remove Bhutan from the race (in a sense its already won). It’s floating high above the race in the Himalayan clouds, acting as an inspiration to show what can happen when a nation really commits.

But whilst the main contenders to date have included some of the most varied geographies on the planet, they have shared some key universal principles that have helped them on the road to carbon neutrality.

Joining the Carbon Neutrality Coalition for Zero Carbon Emissions

One of the first things each country did to formalise their commitments was to join the Carbon Neutrality Coalition. The Coalition brings together a group of pioneering countries that have agreed to develop ambitious climate strategies to meet the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement.

And their plan of action? They will “develop long-term, low-emissions, climate-resilient development strategies, in line with the agreed long-term temperature increase limit, as early as possible and no later than 2020.”

Through this work the Carbon Neutrality Coalition has identified 4 action areas for their partner countries to focus on:

Demonstrate and showcase

how long-term, low greenhouse gas emissions, climate resilient development strategies can become the “lodestar” against which shorter-term planning and policy-making is measured.

Provide leadership

Through exchange of experiences, information, tools and case studies towards setting pathways for carbon neutrality with others in the Coalition and outside.

Advocate

For increased global ambition on mitigation, including through new and innovative channels, and undertake climate action to match the ambition reflected in the Paris Agreement.

Encourage

Further membership from countries to the Coalition and alignment of subnational and non-State actors with the objectives of the Coalition.

And the membership has grown to 19 countries, and counting, with an additional 32 cities signed up. The coalition shows that political action is at the core of the race to become carbon neutral. The changes require such a fundamental shift that without public, political and international support the physical, technological changes would be impossible to implement.

Switching to Renewable Sources

Our front-runners share one core thing in common; they have abundant renewable resources. Iceland has made considerable progress by taking advantage of the hot springs that bubble slowly up under the foundations of its capital city, Reykjavik. Iceland now generates 100% of its energy from renewables. Whilst in tropical Costa Rica a mix of renewables helped to power over 98% of its energy in 2016.  The tropical, mountainous region receives an extremely high level of rainfall and as such, Costa Rica has been able to take advantage of that to generate over 65% of its electricity from hydro-electric sources.   

Costa Rica is also unique in having totally eliminated its military in 1948. The then-President, José Figueres decreed that the money previously spent on the military would be plowed into programmes focussed on healthcare, education and the environment. It’s likely that Costa Rica would be way down the race had it not decided to focus the billions upon billions that most countries spend on defence into other programmes.

New Zealand and Norway are also gearing up to become amongst the first countries to become carbon neutral and they face their own challenges and opportunities in doing so. It’s a point of irony that Norway, having become one of the richest nations in the world from its huge mining, processing and export operations, of carbon emitting oil, is now on course to become one of the first countries to go carbon neutral.

Which… inherently creates a problem. Can Norway really be a genuine player in the race to become carbon neutral when its main export is a product that creates carbon? In fact the NY Times stated in this article “that emissions from Norway’s oil exports this year will be 10 times as much as Norway’s domestic carbon emissions.” And it brings into focus a serious problem in the way we think about carbon emissions, waste products and pollution: just because something is exported to the other side of the world, pumped into the oceans or buried in the ground does not mean that we can simply forget about it. We must take responsibility.

So can Norway really claim to be a leader in cutting carbon emissions when their primary export product is… liquid carbon? This creates a paradox for Norway, in a country with the highest number of Tesla cars, the Norweigan Government needs to ask itself some serious questions before it can be considered a serious contender in the race for carbon neutrality.

The responsibility starts on the shoulders of the citizens of each and every country and their elected politicians; those who hold positions of power in order to take the right decisions. If we are to take into account Norway’s oil export; then unfortunately the country, despite its intentions, falls from being a race leader to a race loser.

Meanwhile New Zealand, on the other side of the world, has its own challenges owing to its massive agricultural industry. New Zealand’s aim is to generate 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 and has only recently introduced a bill for zero carbon emissions by 2050. The bill is facing opposition from farmers as it intends to tackle biologically produced methane emissions that result from mass scale farming practices.  

And the Winner is

Trail-blazing ahead of the rest, little Costa Rica is providing an inspirational example to the rest of the world in its grand plan to go carbon neutral by 2021. President Carlos Alvarado promised in his election victory speech:

“When we reach 200 years of independent life we will take Costa Rica forward and celebrate … that we’ve removed gasoline and diesel from our transportation”

Carlos Alvarado, President of Costa Rica

Scientists have queried whether this is technically possible, but the huge ambition has certainly laid the groundwork for Costa Rica to get there faster than any other country. Costa Rica has put plans in place to help soak up carbon emissions with a massive tree planting programme and has doubled its forest cover in the last 30 years, whilst other countries have been busy decimating theres.

And in 2019 Costa Rica published its National Decarbonisation Plan to support its ambitious programme of decarbonisation with a particular focus on vehicles and transportation. But why has Costa Rica forged ahead where other countries have not?

It is perhaps the beautiful biodiversity that this tropical country, nestled by the equator, enjoys. From rainforest to cloud forest and even dry tropical forest, the tropical ecosystems here mean nature is constantly on show, in all its splendid, exotic glory. In terms of biodiversity this country is one of the richest nations on the planet. And the citizens of Costa Rica know this. They recognise this is potentially the country’s greatest asset and they have sought to protect it through legislation, policy and public support for green causes.

Their connection to nature is simple, immediate and present. In the Western world we have cut down most of our forests; we no longer see the kind of wild animals of all sizes that populate the Costa Rican jungles, in our woods (because we don’t have any). So our connection to nature is lost. When we drive into the countryside we don’t see natural ecosystems; we see farmland. How can we love and protect something that isn’t there.

Costa Rica

Costa Rican’s have collectively decided to walk a path of respect and commitment for their natural environment and seem committed to avoiding unmitigated climate change at all costs. Costa Rica is undoubtedly passionate about its natural space and the wild animals that live there. But there’s perhaps one aspect of this unique country that has enabled it the time, space, money and resources to focus on preserving its natural beauty. It didn’t preserve its military.

It seems fitting that one of the only countries in the world that exists without a military; an agency of government that often takes life, is on course to be one of the first nations in the world to protect natural life. It must be more than coincidence. A whole generation of Costa Ricans have grown up without the destructive power of a military at their disposal and yet they choose to preserve natural life? Perhaps if we start focussing on the beauty of life, the natural systems that sustain us and all the other creatures in this world that also inhabit them, like Costa Rica, we might have a chance at winning the carbon zero game.