QCOSTARICA – Costa Rica’s transportation system is the most polluting in Central America as a result of dependence on oil, poor public transportation, and the disorderly expansion of the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM).
Vehicles are responsible for burning 84% of the hydrocarbons consumed in the country, which makes it almost impossible to reduce polluting emissions while the current model persists.
On average, each Costa Rican generates 1.18 tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) per year from the use of their own vehicle or public transport, as well as from the demand for goods and services that require hauling.
The Costa Rican figure is double that of a country like Colombia, which has cities of up to eight million inhabitants, more in taken into account the greater metropolitan areas of those cities. There, the transport system emits 0.59 tons of CO₂ per person.
Costa Rica’s per capita emissions far exceed those of El Salvador (0.54), Guatemala (0.52), Honduras (0.43), and Nicaragua (0.34).
Guatemala, with a population of almost 18 million (3.3 times greater than that of Costa Rica), generated a total of 8.5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, while Costa Rica emitted 5.9 million tons of CO₂.
For total emissions from the transportation sector, Costa Rica ranks third in the region, despite having the second smallest population.
In this area of the planet, only Panama has an average similar to that of Costa Rica, with 1.15 tons of CO₂ per inhabitant.
The national average of emissions is close to that of Chile (1.51), while the United States generates 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide per person.
This is clear from an analysis prepared by La Nación with data from Climate Watch, a source of global information on climate change and greenhouse gases.
Based on this source, the Report of the State of the Region revealed that Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica lead the contamination by transport in the region.
In Costa Rica, the burning of hydrocarbons for transportation generated more than a third of the total carbon dioxide emitted in 2018, with 37% of 15.8 million tons.
In addition, Costa Rican emissions grew by about 30% between 2010 and 2018.
Many cars and little planning
According to Alberto Mora, director of the State of the Region, all of Central America shows worrying levels of contamination caused by transportation.
The report delves into the analysis of this sector “given that a good part of the total consumption of hydrocarbons corresponds to transport.”
Mora identified three causes that fit with the Costa Rican reality: the high dependence on hydrocarbons, the lack of quality public transport that discourages the use of private vehicles and the disorder in the growth of cities.
“In the report that we published in 2016, we realized the accelerated, disorderly growth of the urban areas configured by the capital cities and the periphery.
“Those urban spots go, above all, out of the cities, which implies increasing times of people who need to move towards the center of the city.
“This, together with the lack of efficient public transport and networks that allow connectivity between the different modes of transport, with greater coverage, makes people almost forced to use private transport to meet their mobility needs,” he said.
The expansion of the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) is a case of growth without planning exposed in the 2016 report. The process of growth towards the sides of the city began in the 80s without any type of control.
This phenomenon caused the inhabitants to find themselves increasingly far from their work centers and public services. This uncontrolled urban expansion, added to a deficient mass public transport system, led to a rapid multiplication of vehicles in the country.
According to data from the Instituto Nacional de Seguros (INS) – the State insurer, at the beginning of the century there were about 640,000 vehicles in circulation; the figure has almost tripled in two decades, as there are currently just over 1.6 million cars on the road and less than a third are buses or freight vehicles, that is, the majority are private cars.
Another aspect highlighted by the State of the Region is that, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), all nations increased their oil bill as a percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP), between 2010 and 2018, with the exception of Honduras.
The value of imports of oil and derivatives represents between 3% and 5% of GDP in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic; and between 6% and 7.6% in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
“This is important to consider, especially in light of the current situation in the country due to the debate about whether to authorize or prohibit oil and natural gas exploration.
“First we have that it is a source of polluting energy, imported, and, in addition, that it uses technology that is going out. So, what sense does it make to bet on it when there are technological options that are in vogue, even in which we are pioneering internationally and that could not only guarantee us clean energy, but also with local and much more efficient production?”, Mora raised.
Transportation: the main barrier to a clean country
Pollution caused by hydrocarbon-based transportation is Costa Rica’s main obstacle on the decarbonization route.
This activity represents 72% of all emissions at the energy level, and 37% of the total releases of carbon dioxide in Costa Rica.
Last October, the Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation), a research program on human development that also analyzes the State of the Region, urged the Government to change the paradigm of its public investment in this sector: prioritize public transport before more roads.
While recognizing the need to improve the national road network, the Program noted that the only way to drastically reduce congestion is to create an intelligent passenger transportation system.
That, it declared, is the only way to begin to correct the road chaos, which increases transportation costs and polluting emissions, as well as travel times for all the people who must move around the GAM.
“What the research tools allow us to show is that the key is to change the system. Sometimes we have made very clear bets on the infrastructure, for example, to build more roads, and not to change the whole logic,” said Leonardo Merino, a researcher at the Estado de la Nación.