Volcanos here are anything but carbon neutral

Arenal continually erupts, and its emissions are high in carbon dioxide. Photo: Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica

Costa Rica repeated its promise Thursday that it will become the first carbon neutral country by 2021. Vice President Alfio Piva told this to the U.N. climate summit in Cancún, México.

The vice president spoke for six minutes to say that Costa Rica will achieve this goal in 2021 and that the country will invest 1 percent of its gross domestic product each year to reach this goal.

The goal has been set because from 9 to 25 percent of so-called greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide. Methane is another contributor, but by far the greatest percentage is from water vapor. The greenhouse gases are what keep Planet Earth habitable, but an estimated 40 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the 18th century are believed to contribute to an increase in the average temperature.

Costa Rica will seek to balance its carbon emissions in order not to contribute to the increase in carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.

But first it has to define what it means. The usual definition is that the country will try to offset its use of fossil fuels. Costa Rica has an advantage because much of its electricity is generated by hydro plants and not petroleum.

Irazú erupted in 1963 and caused lots of problems in the Central Valley. Photo: Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico

Certainly the country will include the emissions from automobiles in the equation. Each gallon of gasoline produces 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, and a gallon diesel produces 22.2 pounds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since the only importer of gasoline is the government’s Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo S.A., computing fuel use should be easy.

But should Costa Rica also include its volcanos? Or how about the carbon dioxide emissions from humans and animals. These are some questions that have to be considered as the country seeks to achieve that goal.

On the other side, plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Presumably this will be worked into the formula. This is why Costa Ricans are taught to be so respectful of trees.

Researchers at the Universidad de Costa Rica determined nine years ago that Volcán Poás, even in an inactive stage, produces 749 tons of carbon dioxide each day. The volcano also produces daily 20 kgs. of mercury, 48 kgs. of hydrogen and 655 kgs. of methane, they said.

The carbon dioxide figure is equivalent to more than 77,000 gallons of gasoline, based on the Environmental Protection Agency figures.

And there are a number of volcanos in the country.

The Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica reported this week on volcano gas emissions and said it was planning to do a detailed inventory of the five volcanos that the Heredia- based agency monitors. They are Rincón de la Vieja, Arenal, Poás, Irazú and Turrialba.

Volcán Poás puts out 749 tons daily of carbon dioxide, according to a 2001 report. Photo: Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica

Naturally an active volcano will produce more gases and more carbon dioxide. The observatory is interested now because Irazú, Turrialba and Poás are emitting more gases, and vegetation is being affected by the sulfur in the fumes. Arenal erupts continually.

The observatory gave no date for its carbon dioxide estimate, but did say it would compare the emissions by the mountains to vehicle emissions.

The observatory also warned that carbon dioxide is not as harmless as many think. It is heavier than normal air and can fill pockets in the landscape with fatal results.

First the observatory will have to determine the composition of each mountains emissions. Some volcanos elsewhere spew out gas that is nearly all water vapor. The composition is variable, depending on the volcano and the state of activity. The observatory said that Arenal is high in carbon dioxide emissions.

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