Wednesday 27 September 2023

Carbon Footprints, yours, others’ and the future of Costa Rica.

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Until a few years ago, I might have thought a carbon footprint was one left by a rubber shoe, made from recycled tires. Whether you believe humans are a major cause of climate change or not, this article is relevant to you. It explains how changing behavior by those acting on beliefs in climate change will impact the world economy.

Costa Rica is used as an example.

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Without taking sides on the climate debate, this article explains the terminology, for those unfamiliar with it. Then it tells how individuals and organizations are acting to reduce their emissions. Lastly, it explores what this may mean for businesses and countries.

What is a carbon footprint?  It is an estimate of the weight of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity. It is measured in tonnes per year. Given that it is a gas, small weights imply a lot of emissions. It can be estimated at a personal level, at a national level, for businesses, or for other organizations or communities. Emissions from whatever source add to the global total.

Those organizations wanting to be ‘green’ already report their data. The accuracy of reported numbers must be questioned. Many seek to impress voters, consumers, shareholders or governments. They have strong motivations to cheat, either exaggerating or reducing the real numbers for their own ends.

Why are carbon footprints considered to be important? The US Energy Information Administration defines greenhouse gases as those which keep heat in the earth’s atmosphere. According to the EPA, carbon dioxide is by far the most important of these. It contributes 82% of the total. If you believe in human causes of climate change, actions by any country, organization or person impact all humans.

Forests are the lungs of the earth. They absorb CO2.

What are the main sources of human carbon emissions? Many sources of carbon dioxide are natural. Catastrophic events have caused both global warming and cooling in the past. Mass extinctions and more recently pressure on human populations occurred.

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75% of human CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels. These are used directly or through electricity generation for: heating, air-conditioning, vehicles, ships, manufacturing of all types and appliance use. Land clearance and farming are also important. Dairy and livestock farming are important sub-categories.

International perspectives- Due to their large populations, China and India are significant polluters and generators of greenhouse gases. China emits, 90million tonnes per annum and India 21million tonnes. The US is by far the largest polluter among western countries.  With a third of India’s population, the US surpasses it in Carbon emissions with 50million tonnes per year. Europe is also a major generator of CO2.

Generally, very poor countries and those with renewable energy sources have lower numbers. Developing Asia, Africa and much of Latin America fall into the poor category.

In all countries, government, farming, commercial and Industrial organizations are intermediaries. Households use their products and services. Estimates as to carbon emissions by military and space activities are unreliable due to the secrecy and partisanship they arouse. They are likely to be very significant, particularly during wars.

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Personal Activities- For those who take personal responsibility for their CO2  emissions, per capita data is more relevant than national data. The table below provides some perspectives.

Per capita carbon emissions for selected countries in tonnes per year:

Country Per capita annual carbon Comments
Qatar 45.4 Oil state with low energy costs
Saudi Arabia 19.5 Ditto
USA 16.5 Non-signatory to reduction treaties
Russia   9.7 Oil and gas use and heavy industry are significant
Germany   9.0 Coal is the largest fuel for electricity generation
Netherlands   7.7  
UK   6.5  
France   4.6 Nuclear power reduces emissions.


Arab oil states are the biggest per capita polluters. The US is the leader among western economies. (Canada is close behind). China has annual emissions per capita of 7.5 tonnes. This reflects its pace of industrialization and urbanization as well as its use of coal to generate 56% of its electricity. Less developed India’s emissions are only 1.7 tonnes per capita.

In Latin America, Costa Rica does well, compared to most of the other more developed countries. This is largely due to its suitability for renewable energy sources, hydro (electrical), wind, solar and geothermal. We make no comment on the costs/efficiency CR’s electricity generation. Costa Rica emits 1.6 tonnes per capita of CO2 per year. This is better than Chile’s 4.7, Mexico’s 3.8, Ecuador’s 2.8, Brazil’s 2.7 and Panama’s 2.3. Less developed Latin American countries are all well below these numbers.

Growing Consumer Activism

Some people blame ‘corporate greed’ for the situation and seek carbon emissions reductions from these organizations.  Others are taking responsibility for their own carbon emissions.

Many individuals are modifying their living and purchasing activities. Changes in their buying behavior will impact commercial enterprises on a large scale in the coming years.

The newly set UK government target of zero-carbon emissions by 2050 would require drastic changes. These include dramatic reductions in air transport, elimination of fossil-fuelled vehicles and much more.

European news media are giving a lot of coverage to these issues. Sky TV news in the UK covered individual emissions recently. Its programs analyzed the current carbon emissions of selected households. They set targets for reductions and compared the results. One family reduced its emissions by 40%.

The main ways to reduce emissions were as follows:

  • Avoiding flying, especially long hall and first or business class travel. Trains were favored.
  • Ending purchase of air-freighted foods in favor of local and maritime shipped foods.
  • Consuming fewer dairy products and less or no beef, mutton and pork, in favor of a more vegetarian diet.
  • Reduction or elimination of car use.

Implications of carbon emissions reduction for Industries and governments

Electricity generation – Coal, oil, and gas generation need to be replaced with renewables and maybe safer nuclear power.

Transportation- Airlines, International tourism, cruise lines, and aerospace manufacture are all likely to see significantly lower demand. Governments seeking green votes will impose restrictions or higher taxes on these sectors to reduce their carbon footprints. Vehicle manufacture has a significant carbon footprint. This is true for electric vehicles too. Rail transportation and mass transit transportation are likely to increase.

Agriculture and food- Globally, we can expect reductions in air-freighted foods, forest clearcutting, meat, and dairy farming. Corresponding increases in vegetable, cereal and fruit production should be expected. Population pressure will increase the need for high-intensity agricultural technology, including GMO crops.

Manufacturing- Industries that are especially heavy users of energy such as cement manufacture, metals, chemicals and transportation, will be under pressure to reduce fossil fuel consumption.  Switching to less energy-intensive materials is likely.

Household Consumption-New technologies for the reduction in household consumption in appliances and electrical devices will be accelerated. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart controls will play a role. More working from home is likely.

Rural versus urban populations- The cost of living and working in rural environments will increase relative to urban locations, due to relative transportation and logistics costs.

Implications for Costa Rica- Costa Rica promotes itself as a ‘green’ country. It seeks to attract tourists. Many arrive on cruise ships and long-haul flights. It is a major exporter of coffee, fruit, and vegetables.

In the future, mass tourism is likely to be constrained by other countries and the tourists themselves. Focusing on higher-end tourism could reduce environmental and habitat damage. It would be more in sync with expected global trends and reduced long-haul journeys.

Focusing on large scale food exports by ship rather than airfreight might be wise. Airfreight will be only for luxury foods.

Costa Rica already has major traffic and road problems. Continued investment in public transport and road pricing would be sensible. A switch to home working for digital workers can be expected, enabled by new technologies.

Continued reforestation, enforcing the laws against illegal logging and reducing land clearance for construction would all counter the impacts of our carbon footprint.

Aaron Aalborg is a novelist, living in Alajuela Province. Previously he was an international businessman and economist.

Article by Aaron Aalborg

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