Costa Rica’s green image ideal for electric cars

December 23, 2010

In line with international efforts to curb climate change, the Costa Rican government has stated it wants to become carbon-neutral by the year 2021. One important step toward that goal is now happening: the availability of consumer electric cars on the market.

Last week, Japanese automaker Mitsubishi announced that in March its Costa Rican distributor, Veinsa, would begin selling the i-MiEV, a four-door electric plug-in car that emits no carbon emissions. The i-MiEV, or Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle, is powered by a chargeable lithium battery and can drive 160 kilometers on a full seven-hour charge.

The launch of the i-MiEV here is a small victory for Costa Rica, as it will hit stores here before it is sold in the U.S., South America and China. Only in Japan and Europe will it be available first.

Mitsubishi chose Costa Rica because of the country’s positive environmental image abroad, thanks to a bit of old-fashioned political lobbying.

 “Costa Rican Foreign Minister [René Castro] recently visited Japan’s Mitsubishi headquarters and spoke with [the automakers] about bringing the i-MiEV here,” said Guillermo Charpentier, Veinsa’s general manager.

“He also used the visit to promote Costa Rica’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral. One way to do that is with electric cars,” he said.

Costa Rica currently emits an estimated 12 megatons of carbon dioxide each year. Automobiles account for 75 percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

“Transportation is, by far, our biggest challenge,” said Pedro León, director of the Peace with Nature program, a governmental environmental initiative launched by ex-President Oscar Arias in 2007.

“Many people drive alone, and that’s a habit we need to change, especially with the type of cars we currently have on the road,” he said.

Changing Costa Rica’s driving habits may seem like a daunting task. But there are signs of improvement.

In August, the National Power and Light Company (CNFL) donated tha Reva – an electric compact car made in India – to Castro and his staff at the Foreign Ministry. The Reva became available in Costa Rica in 2009. Foreign Ministry staff use the car for transportation in and around San José. 

“Castro is a great ally for our cause,” said CNFL General Manager Pablo Cob.

“We want other agencies and companies to get enthusiastic about this idea, and realize that we are privileged to be an environmentally rich country. We should do what we can to try to prevent climate change,” Cob said.

The use of electric cars by government officials is a popular marketing tactic to spread the word about Costa Rica’s potential for selling electric cars. While campaigning, President Laura Chinchilla scooted around town in a Reva and praised its efficiency. Employees of the British and Swiss embassies also drive Revas to promote the importance of fossil fuel emissions. 

“We want to show people that we don’t need to have something big and luxurious to do some of the things that are needed as far as getting around,” Kate Cruse, the sustainable operations officer at the British Embassy in Costa Rica, said earlier this year.

Even with government support, electric cars have a long way to go before they become prevalent on the streets of the capital. According to Luis Echeverri, director of Reva’s offices in Costa Rica, 70 Revas have been sold since 2009, and import taxes drive the starting price up by 18 percent. 

“We have to be realistic about the market size we have for electric cars in Costa Rica,” Echeverri said. “But if the government steps in and lowers import taxes as they have promised to do, there could be a much larger market for a less expensive vehicle.”

A Reva starts here at $14,000 here. Yet to be priced, the i-MiEV may cost twice as much.

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