THE BLOG

A Goal for Copenhagen: Keep the Focus on Enforcement

11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Countdown to CopenhagenFew seem willing to address the issue openly, but one of the toughest issues to address when delegates gather in Copenhagen in December for the global conference on climate change will be governance. Many developing nations attending have stressed and under-funded civil systems. Others are torn by armed conflict and human suffering that push enforcement of environmental laws to the fringes of the political priority list. As an experienced environmental prosecutor, I know how hard it is to achieve compliance particularly with environmental laws which are often perceived as not posing the type of immediate threat to public safety that ordinary crimes are -- even in a stable democracy such as the United States. I also know what happens without enforcement: Very little.

Beyond my experience as a prosecutor, I also have a personal connection with a story that proves this point. That experience is with the tale of two modest Central American nations, Costa Rica and Nicaragua -- neighbors who share a long common border, similar environmental laws -- and vastly different records of enforcement. I've watched this tale unfold first-hand for nearly 30 years during frequent visits to the region to help with family businesses in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. (The family coffee farm there is Rainforest Alliance-certified.)

When economic expansion, cheap credit for cattle and laws favoring deforestation all contributed to a dramatic loss of Costa Rica's lush tropical rain forest between 1950 and the mid-1980s, alarm bells went off in the corridors of power. Vast stretches of remaining public forest land were placed under protection, national parks were expanded and reforestation projects launched. With a well-established rule of law and functioning government institutions, the protection worked. A quarter of the nation's territory is national forest land. Forests on privately-owned land are protected with the help of FUNDECOR (Foundation for the Development of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range), a non-profit foundation established to protect Costa Rica's tropical forests. Under a FUNDECOR program, revenue from taxes on gasoline and tourism are used to pay farmers not to cut forested areas of their land. Those monitoring the program say the compliance rate of private landowners is high -- 99 percent, according to one estimate. Moreover, although the situation is far from perfect, in many areas of the country, people really do comply with laws restricting logging.

As a result, Costa Rica's rainforest, which had shrunk from about 60 percent  to around a quarter of the country's land area between 1950 and the mid-1980s, began growing again and today once again covers over half the country. Shrewd political leadership coupled with some slick marketing has leveraged the richness of those forests into one of the country's biggest commercial assets. Eco-tourism today is a huge money-spinner and President Oscar Arias talks about a new goal to make Costa Rica the first nation in the world to become carbon neutral by 2021, in time for the country's 200th birthday.  

The ingredients to this success: political stability, functioning institutions, a respect for the rule of law, a strong economy and a stable middle class that values quality of life issues, such as a clean environmental quality. Now, with huge economic benefit from eco-tourism, strong environmental practices play an additional role. They protect an important commercial asset. The consistency of Costa Rica's enforcement of environmental laws -- and other legislation -- also creates a level of predictability that encourages new investment across a broad cross-section of the economy. 

In neighboring Nicaragua, the story is very different. With income levels about one-fifth of those in Costa Rica, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere (behind Haiti). Poverty, together with a history of political turmoil through much of the past century, have left Nicaragua's government institutions woefully under-funded, inefficient and open to corruption. There is no well-developed culture of compliance with environmental laws or consistent enforcement to assure such compliance. The judicial system is weak and there is no clearly defined political vision of what to do with the forested land.

Because of this, illegal logging operations all too often out-muscle municipal authorities who are responsible for forest management but have few of the resources needed to fulfill the task. Today, Nicaragua's forests occupy roughly half the territory they covered in 1950 and continue to shrink in size, albeit at a slower pace than a decade ago. A dramatic turn-around any time soon seems too much to hope for.

My point here is that it will be critical to focus in Copenhagen on steps that take the realities on the ground into consideration. Only such steps can make a difference. Environment specialist Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations is correct when he calls it "a waste of time" to focus too heavily on near-term, legally binding carbon emissions caps for developing countries. They may sound serious, but, as Levi points out, they are largely toothless. Verification is difficult and punitive measures highly unlikely.

There's no silver bullet that can resolve the carbon emissions problem in Copenhagen, but there are steps that can be taken to help developing nations strengthen their institutions and, with that, enforcement.

Under provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement's (CAFTA) environmental chapter, for example, the United States is working with governments in the region, including Nicaragua, on a program to strengthen environmental legislation. This work includes a public awareness campaign about a provision in the agreement that enables individuals to sue for compliance.

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration declared it planned tough enforcement of environmental provisions in America's trade agreements. Such steps are crucial because the sooner developing countries learn there is a visible upside to responsible environmental practices then pressing for enforcement will be seen more as an asset than a liability. Then we will be on the way to real change.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.