San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
No Sugar, Please

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

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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Ken Morris

Unless by “decisive action” the headline means “decisive rejection,” I couldn’t disagree more. Passing a bill that not only gives tax breaks to buyers of electric (and maybe hybrid) vehicles but also expects non-motorists to subsidize them by providing for free parking on public streets is not good policy, environmental or otherwise.

Yes, air pollution is high in Costa Rica, and yes, motor vehicles are the main contributors to it. However, reducing or even eliminating polluting emissions from a subset of the additional cars imported into the country won’t improve existing air quality but will bring other problems with it.

Once again, the harmful impact of cars on the environment is not limited to emissions. Cars are polluting to manufacture, to transport to market, to maintain, and to dispose of. Plus, roads and parking lots are a major environmental assault. In an effort to reduce one source of environmental damage, other damages will be encouraged.

And the environmental damage cars cause only scratches the surface of the social damage they cause. This damage includes the crashes that kill and maim, the negative health effects of driving even when you don’t crash (limited exercise leading to hypertension etc.), and the utter destruction of civic life by taking the streets away from the public and turning them over to machines. Indeed, cars are even among the “root causes” of crime. They are because they destroy the street life that provides the most natural protections against criminal acts.

Why on earth anyone would want to encourage the introduction of more cars of any kind is beyond me. Why they would justify this introduction in terms of environmentalism is a feat of rationalization that defies belief. Why they would pass a bill expecting the 75 percent of the population that don’t own cars to subsidize the 25 percent who may buy new ones is so grotesquely oppressive that you have to wonder if the proponents of this bill fancy themselves feudal lords rather than representatives in a democratic-republic.

Oh, but this article makes the usual assumption that more cars are inevitable anyway. They are? In reality, a large portion of car owners don’t get from point A to point B any faster in a car than they could by bus or walking, and they certainly don’t get there cheaper. Why then are they buying and driving cars?

The main answer is unfortunately snobbery. Car owners feel (or want to feel) themselves of a higher social class than the lower orders who walk, ride the bus, or ride a bicycle. And now they even want the lower orders to subsidize their snobbery. It’s this attitude that motorists are superior to the masses that must be attacked, not caved into with a subsidy.

And the sense of superiority refected by owining and driving a car is on abundant display at PAC headquarters, where people are always parking on the sidewalk and in the bike lane. It’s the usual motorist’s attitude of to hell with the lower orders who might benefit from a sidewalk or bike lane. If motorists want to park there, well, aren’t motorists the socially superior demographic and entitled to do as they please?

Yet PAC is the party that introduced this bill in the name of environmentalism. If they were honest, they would admit that snobbery is the real name that should be stamped on the bill.

True environmentalists and democrats wouldn’t even consider a bill like this. Indeed, as we can all see, the people who like it the most are the car dealers. They’re drooling over the prospect of more car sales. What a surprise.

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Bobpiazza

Going to all electric, or even hybrid, vehicles is the smart move. But, when doing so, serious thought must be given to the cycling of old batteries.

If you import 100,000 electric vehicles, then in 4 years or so, their batteries will need to be changed out. If you do not plan for this then in the future you will see batteries lining the urban streets as you now do with trash that can’t be recycled.

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