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Costa Rica threw down a green gauntlet this week, announcing its plan to become the world's first carbon-neutral destination.

At a sustainable tourism conference, the country's ecotourism organization (CANAECO) and the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications signed an agreement that puts in place a system to cover the offsetting of tourists' flights.

Visitors to this tiny, tourism-dependent nation - only 51,100 square kilometres (compared with Canada's 10 million) but home to 5 per cent of the world's biodiversity - will be relieved of guilt, and operators will no longer have to ask them to offset, nor will they have to cover their offsetting costs. Instead, the program -- opting in is voluntary for operators -- will see the offsetting cost split among the various tourism providers who benefit from the visit, from the international tour operator booking the trip down to the small lodge housing visitors during their stay, making the ecological effort more affordable.

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The program is designed to address the glaring lack of accountability in the area of international fuel: Though airline fuel is purchased in one country, no system is in place to assign responsibility for emissions released during international travel to either the country of departure or arrival.

"Beginning today, Costa Rica is on the way to becoming the first carbon-neutral destination in the world," said Jurgen Stein of CANAECO.

Really, the plan has been designed for December's Copenhagen climate-change conference, and is a part of Costa Rica's commitment to become carbon-neutral over all by 2021. While the tourist receives a carbon-offsetting certificate, the money raised - ranging from around $10 to $30 per visitor - will go to the nation's forestry financing fund (FONAFIFO) to plant what will basically be carbon-absorption forests. Most of the trees to be planted will be indigenous, and will have a 20-year lifespan - at that point, the trees pass their maximum carbon-absorbing ability and will be harvested, with the local farmer receiving the profit.

The monospecies aspect of the program (the planting of one particular type of tree in a set location) has raised concern among those who want the funds to be directed toward protecting biodiversity, by paying local farmers to resist lucrative offers to sell primary forest on their property to international logging interests.

This reforestation model, Stein says, was selected because it is easily understood throughout the world. "What we are doing right now is just the beginning. We believe, in CANAECO, that the biodiversity part will be the most important part," he said. "But we are beginning with reforestation."

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