Costa Rica's president elect promises zero-carbon transport

The first-of-its-kind pledge from a Costa Rican leader to remove gas and diesel from the country's transportation faces significant challenges. A plan to achieve that goal will most likely be ready by 2021. 

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
Costa Rica's president-elect Carlos Alvarado talks during a ceremony at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in San José, Costa Rica, on April 26. In his victory speech in April, he promised to end the use of fossil fuels for transportation.

Costa Rica will reach 200 years of independence in 2021 and the country’s new president plans to mark it with a revolution of his own: A plan to end the use of fossil fuels in transport.

"When we reach 200 years of independent life we will take Costa Rica forward and celebrate ... that we’ve removed gasoline and diesel from our transportation" plans, Carlos Alvarado promised in his victory speech this month.

The progressive beat rival Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical preacher and musician, with 60 percent of the vote in second-round elections, and will take office on May 8.

The president-elect's promise marks the first time a Costa Rican leader has backed such a move, though green organizations have previously urged it.

According to Mr. Alvarado’s environmental advisors, no date has yet been set for a full phase out of fossil fuels in transport, but the plan should be ready by 2021.

Achieving zero-carbon transport quickly – even in a Central American country well-known for its environmental commitment – will be a significant challenge, energy experts say.

Jose Daniel Lara, a Costa Rican energy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said completely eliminating fossil fuels within just a few years is probably unrealistic – though the plan will lay the groundwork for faster action toward the goal.

“A proposal like this one must be seen by its rhetoric value and not by its technical precision,” Mr. Lara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Oscar Echeverría, president of the Vehicle and Machinery Importers Association, said the transition away from fossil fuels in transport can’t be rushed as the clean transport market is so far undeveloped.

“If there’s no previous infrastructure, competence, affordable prices, and waste management we’d be leading this process to failure. We need to be careful,” Mr. Echeverría said.

Small country, big idea

But economist Mónica Araya, a Costa Rican sustainability expert and director of Costa Rica Limpia, which promotes renewable energy and electric transport, said that in a country already rapidly weaning itself off fossil fuels, focusing on transport – one of the last major challenges – could send a powerful message to the world.

“Getting rid of fossil fuels is a big idea coming from a small country. This is an idea that’s starting to gain international support with the rise of new technologies," she said in an interview.

Costa Rica’s push toward clean energy faces no large-scale backlash, in part because the country has no significant oil or gas industry.

But demand for cars is rising, as is use of other transport systems, and that may prove one of the biggest challenges in meeting the new goal, Lara said.

According to data by the National Registry – the country’s records agency – there were twice as many cars registered as babies born in 2016.

Transport is today the country’s main source of climate changing emissions. According to the country’s National Meteorological Institute, 64 percent of Costa Rica’s emissions come from energy use, and more than two thirds of that is from transport.

According to data from the State of the Region report, put together by a council of Costa Rica’s university leaders, public transport has struggled to meet the transport needs of the country.

As a result, demand for private vehicles has risen dramatically, with the car industry growing 25 percent in 2015 alone, making Costa Rica one of the fastest growing auto markets in Latin America, according to the report.

Budget hole

One problem in cutting back on fossil fuels is that the country’s budget depends on them, Lara said.

According to Ministry of Treasury data, 22 percent – more than a fifth – of the government’s income comes from fossil fuel taxes, and most of those are levied on transport.

That is particularly problematic because the country has run a budget deficit since 2009, with its debt now having climbed to more than 6 percent of GDP last year, according to the Treasury.

The International Monetary Fund noted in 2017 that “public debt continues to rise rapidly” despite efforts to curb it.

But the president’s proposal to eliminate fossil fuel use for transport could force a rethink of Costa Rica’s financial dependence on a pollution source, Lara said.

The country could, for instance, consider broader new taxes on carbon emissions, Ms. Araya said, a move that could provide cost-savings benefits, including less spending by the country’s health services on respiratory problems.

The new president-elect, a former national employment minister under the country’s current center-left government, envisions eliminating transport fuels as just another step toward a full phase-out of fossil fuels.

Such an achievement would be a defining moment in the country’s history, akin to the country’s abolition of its army in 1948, he said.

The effort to end the use of transport fossil fuels is expected to start with reform of the country’s hydrocarbon laws.

Technology improvements

Araya said that the rapid international scale-up of renewable power and electric transport could make things easier – and be a big economic opportunity for Costa Rica.

“For example, it took almost 20 years to get to one million electric cars [worldwide]. It took 18 months to reach 2 million. The third million happened in around the next eight months. This is exponential growth," she said.

Prices are falling and efficiency growing in new clean energy technologies, including battery storage, she said. The biggest barrier to seeing them much more widely used may simply be that people aren’t yet used to them, she added.

“Tackling resistance to change is one of the most important tasks we have right now,” Araya said.

This article was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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