Why our Assembly owes Costa Rica decisive action on the electric car bill

October 25, 2016
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See also: Make Costa Rica great again?

Costa Rica has begun to discuss in earnest how to reduce the shameful pollution that its ever-growing fleet of vehicles is creating.

I’ll admit that saying “Costa Rica has begun to discuss it” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more accurate to say that debate has commenced in the Legislative Assembly, has been reported in the press, and provoked swift reactions from car-import business owners. It’s a start.

The issue is a priority, and may be urgent. The gas emissions of Costa Rica’s 1.4 million cars is one of the dark sides of the country’s conservationist history. It is no longer possible to sweep this reality under the rug or pretend that the vehicle market will magically turn towards clean technologies on its own.

Legislators are debating a bill that would stimulate electric car imports for five years and up to 100,000 units. Two legislators from the ruling Citizen Action Party (PAC) put the bill forward, and it received preliminary approval in a commission before its contents sounded alarm bells for interested parties and in the court of public opinion.

The bill is designed for electric vehicles, not the hybrids that have been circulating in Costa Rica for several years now, primarily Toyotas. The Toyota importer now wants to include its models in the bill, and has mounted a successful lobbying effort to convince other legislators. The Executive Branch has not yet taken a clear stand, and based on past legislative experiences, it looks like we’re in for a long process.

That’s what it looks like – but we must avoid this. Costa Rica has touted its environmental achievements for decades and now proudly shows off its energy generation matrix, 98% of which comes from clean sources, particularly hydroelectric. This is more than an achievement: it is an additional commitment and, above all, an opportunity to “electrify” our vehicles.

The obligatory next step is to work on this mass of cars that won’t stop growing at a rhythm of 164 cars per day. All of these, or practically all, are running on fuel.

The legislative plan is to lift taxes on the import of new electric cars so they can compete in the local market – even against existing hybrids, which run partially with fuel and therefore approach the pollution levels of traditional vehicles.

Should the bill be broadened and provide equal benefits to different technologies with different competitive advantages? Are legislators’ interests genuine when they happen to coincide with car importers? Would it be effective to create a legal framework that treats electric cars and hybrids the same, when they emit polluting gases in radically different quantities?

The answers are in the balance, and they’d better emerge soon. Costa Rica has one car for every 3.5 people. The data for 2015 shows 285 cars for every 1,000 people, which surpasses both Latin American and worldwide averages. Public transportation seems a long way from becoming a real option for reducing car use. Our energy production is very clean, but our energy consumption stinks – when you consider the transportation sector, 70% of our energy consumed comes from hydrocarbons.

Because of its image, internal necessity, and its tradition of leadership in environmental matters, Costa Rica must show leadership in promoting environmentally friendly vehicles. And it must do this soon, preventing the subject from getting bogged down in too many legal criteria, corporate interests and the political considerations of one party or another.

Consumers will still have to decide whether we prefer a diesel or gas-guzzling car, but at least the government will have done its part. The struggle against climate change is not a matter that the market can resolve on its own. Quite the opposite.

Álvaro Murillo is an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. In “No Sugar, Please,” his twice-monthly column, he explores politics in its broadest terms, from the halls of government to community life. Connect with him on Twitter.

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