Combatting Vehicle Pollution in Central America

A brief summary compiled by Martin Mowforth

April 2019

In recent months both El Salvador and Costa Rica have begun to take steps towards reducing air pollution from vehicles. As all visitors to the region are well aware, there are many locations and times of day in the region’s cities where and when the air is unbreathable due to excessive vehicle emissions.

Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado has signed decrees to incentivise electric and zero emission vehicles and to promote mobility by other modes of transport. The First Lady, Claudia Dobles, who is leading the initiative, said, “We are incentivising zero-emission technologies with the aim of achieving our goal of decarbonisation whilst at the same time enabling the population to make use of more sustainable and efficient transport.”

The Costa Rican decrees also promote actions such as the provision of shower facilities at work for those who travel to work by bicycle. Bus and train travel are also promoted along with car-sharing, the use of hybrid vehicles and increased recharging locations for electric vehicles.

In El Salvador, the National Council of Environmental Sustainability and Vulnerability (CONASAV by its Spanish initials) has presented a series of reforms to the Land Transport Law. In essence the reforms aim to reduce atmospheric pollution in the country.

After establishing that current levels of air pollution have reached dangerous levels, the CONASAV reforms focus particularly on the reduction of emissions by public transport and allow the police force to confiscate vehicles which exceed specific thresholds of pollutant emissions. The reforms also recommend the replacement of public service vehicles that are over 20 years old and that this new measure should be implemented within three years.

The World Health Organisation has placed El Salvador among the Latin American countries with the highest levels of atmospheric contamination and has associated these levels especially with public transport.

Panamá is also looking for strategies to lower vehicle emissions and the Guatemalan Union of Car Importers is now seeking legislation to lower the age of imported vehicles. In Guatemala more than 2 million vehicles are older than 2008. The Union’s proposals would limit the age of imported cars to 10 years, 15 years for trucks and SUVs and 20 years for commercial vehicles such as tractors. The appropriate legislation, however, is not yet very far up the political agenda in Guatemala, where some of the buses on the streets are over 30 years old. Many of these are imported from the United States and are sometimes referred to as ‘zombie clunkers’ having been modified after import. Often the modifications reduce the effects of safety features.

Far from addressing the dangers of exporting clunkers, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration hopes to freeze fuel efficiency standards at 2020 levels. The UK also plays a role in the used vehicle market. According to the Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse, 50% of British heavy vehicles reaching end-of-life are reused or resold in other countries after refurbishment.


  • El Economista, 7 November 2018, ‘Costa Rica emite decretos para incentivar uso de vehículos eléctricos’.
  • La Prensa Gráfica, 8 January 2019, ‘Proponen que PNC pueda remitir vehículos por contaminación de aire’.
  • Sebastián Rodríguez, 25 February 2019, ‘Costa Rica launches ‘unprecedented’ push for zero emissions by 2050’, Thomson Reuters Foundation.
  • Martha Pskowski, 24 January 2019, ‘Zombie clunkers: has your local bus been resurrected in Guatemala?’ The Guardian.
  • Fien Van Den Steen, 6 July 2018, ‘Guatemala, the end of using cars until the end?’ Global Fleet.

Transport initiatives in Costa Rica

Despite our efforts to point out that Costa Rica is not as environmentally friendly or as labour friendly as its legislation would suggest,  the Costa Rican government is clearly making some real attempts to move towards its pledge to decarbonise the country. The country’s transport system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, so meeting this goal will not be an easy task, but the following summary indicates some important first steps made towards the goal.

By Martin Mowforth

Rail reactivation

In November 2019, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy together with the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (ICF by its Spanish initials) initiated a feasibility study into the reconstruction of 131 km of railroad between the central province of Alajuela and the Pacific Central province of Puntarenas. Such a rail line could be used to transport passengers and freight.

$550,000 (USD) have been invested in the initiative. Elizabeth Briceño, President of ICF, said: “We are sure that this will contribute to the economic reactivation of the zone and will generate employment.” The funds will be used for the pre-feasibility and feasibility studies, market analyses, risk analysis, environmental studies, and design, administrative and budget evaluations.

The studies are expected to take seven months. The Planning Minister, Pilar Garrido, linked the project entitled ‘Railroad Reactivation to the Pacific’ with other possible rail initiatives such as the ‘Limón Electrified Freight Train (Caribbean Zone)’ with the aim of connecting by rail six of the country’s seven provinces.

Electric cars

The IONIQ model of electric cars has a range of 375 km from one single battery charge which takes up to 54 minutes. In Costa Rica, the model has been marketed for two years and 400 sales have already been achieved. This is a level of acceptance which Jerry Campos, regional manager of Hyundai, says is greater than expectations.

By the end of 2019 Costa Rica had 34 fast charging points for electric cars in operation. They are part of a network of charging stations (called ‘electrolineras’) that the government plans to expand in future years.

Of course we need to remember that not everything about electric vehicles is environmentally friendly or even socially friendly. Nevertheless, it can be said that if Costa Rica manages to change its fleet of vehicles from petrol to electric over the course of the next decade, then there is little doubt that it will be further along the path of phasing out fossil fuels than most other countries in the world. But that’s a big ‘if’.

In February this year, El Salvador also introduced its first completely electric car to the public, again with plans for later expansion. It is being marketed there by Grupo Q which is hoping to sell five units within two months of its introduction. Currently there is only one charging point in El Salvador. At the price of $39,800 (USD) the car is unfortunately out of the range of the vast majority of the country’s population.

Electric buses

More recently (March 2020) the government of Costa Rica has announced a pilot plan to introduce electric buses as one aspect of their plan to decarbonise the country’s economy. Three autobuses have been donated to Costa Rica by the German Cooperation Agency GTZ, and the Costa Rican government has extended the scheme to include a total of 15 electric buses by the end of this year.

Currently the idea is that they will be tested out in different parts of the country, and data will be collected on their serviceability, their usage and their profitability. The eventual aim is to turn the whole public transport fleet in the country over to electric buses. Claudia Dobles, the First Lady of the country, said: “This is a clear signal that the sector wants to modernise and provide an improved service to its users.”

The pilot plan requires the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity to provide the necessary accompanying technical electrical infrastructure. Additionally, the National Learning Institute is to provide training for drivers and mechanics; and a special tariff will be charged for electric bus users.

A group of transport businesses are involved in the plan and each participating business is expected to purchase at least one of the 12 new buses. The transport businesses have been pressuring the government to promote policies for the implementation of bus-only lanes and favourable financial credit lines for green initiatives such as bus renewals and operating costs.

The National Decarbonisation Plan presented by President Carlos Alvarado’s government in February 2019 envisages the elimination of the use of fossil fuels in Costa Rica by the year 2050.

Is rail making a comeback in Central America?

By Martin Mowforth

November 2020

The article listed above this one (from March 2020) discusses recent transport initiatives in Costa Rica which included the reactivation of rail transport. In this article we briefly report on four other rail initiatives, one in Panamá, one in Nicaragua, one in El Salvador and one in Honduras.

In Panamá at the beginning of this year a new line was planned for Panamá’s modern metro system to pass by tunnel under the Panamá Canal instead of by a bridge next to the Bridge of the Americas which was originally foreseen for this link.

In February the HPH Joint Venture Consortium of Hyundai Engineering & Construction and Posco E&C was awarded a $US 2.057bn contract for the design, construction and financing of metro Line 3.

The line is to run between the west of Panamá City and the heart of the city which is east of the canal zone. The tunnel will be divided into two segments for the sake of evacuation in the event of emergencies.

In Nicaragua the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE by its Spanish initials) is considering part-financing the construction of a rail project linking the country’s main airport on the outskirts of Managua, Managua itself, Masaya and Granada. One branch would allow travellers to journey from the airport to the city of Granada without having to pass through Managua.

In discussing the project, the BCIE President Dante Mossi drew attention to the fact that Nicaragua has the best project execution in Central America, highlighting that “the Ministry of Finance has a good planning system, allowing us to make an orderly allocation of all the resources. … We have not had corruption problems in Nicaragua. … It is a country that makes the most correct use of BCIE funds.”

In El Salvador the Office of the Presidential Commission for Strategic Projects and the Autonomous Port Executive Commission (CEPA by its Spanish initials) are currently designing the terms of reference for the bidding for the conduct of pre-feasibility studies and feasibility studies for the construction of a rail line to be known as the Pacific Train.

The aim of this plan is to create efficient rail operations in El Salvador, allowing for both passenger and freight transport.

In Honduras the BCIE is to provide financial support for a feasibility study into the implementation of a freight train project to connect the Isla de Amapala in the department of Valle (in the south of the country) with Puerto Castilla and Puerto Cortés on the Atlantica coast.


  • El Economista, 13.02.20, ‘Línea 3del Metro de Panamá pasará por un túnel bajo el Canal’
  • Informe Pastrán, ‘BCIE financiará ferrocarril en Nicaragua’
  • Rosa María Pastrán, 10.03.20, ‘CEPA abre proceso para estudio de factibilidad de aeropuerto en el oriente de El Salvador’, La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador
  • Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE / CABEI): 
  • Comisión Ejecutiva Portuaria Autónoma (CEPA):
  • ENCA Newsletter No. 78, ‘Transport Initiatives in Costa Rica’, (p.11).










An airport in eastern El Salvador?

At the beginning of 2020, El Salvador’s Autonomous Port Executive Commission (CEPA by its Spanish initials) sought firms to conduct a feasibility study into the construction of an airport in the east of the country close to the port of La Unión, to be known as the Pacific Airport. Eleven firms were given 300 days to produce their studies and the results of these should be presented in November this year. The decision on which study to accept will be made public in September 2021.

The aim of the plan is to provide air transport connection to the east of the country and for this development to become a pole of economic development for this region of the country.

A marketing study is also seen as an important part of the presentation, to include estimates of the demand by both airlines and by passengers, the commercial demand and possible projections of air traffic in the region. Additionally the study should make recommendations about how the project should be executed, possibly by a public-private partnership.

CEPA President Federico Anliker has explained that four specific sites have been identified for the potential airport. He further outlined two major reasons why an airport is necessary: first, because more than 50 per cent of Salvadorans living in the east of the country have relatives in the United States and this represents a potential demand for air travel; second, an airport will help the east of the country to develop and promote a tourism industry there.


  • Rosa María Pastrán, 10.03.20, ‘CEPA abre proceso para estudio de factibilidad de aeropuerto en el oriente de El Salvador’, La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador
  • Comisión Ejecutiva Portuaria Autónoma (CEPA):
  • Eddie Galdamez, 09.09.20, ‘The El Salvador Pacific Airport. A Project by Nayib Bukele’, El Salvador Info,


Electric motoring is still not easy in Costa Rica

By Martin Mowforth

Key words: decarbonisation; electric vehicles; EV charging stations.

The first two articles in this section of ‘The Violence of Development’ website (dated April 2019 and March 2020 – section entitled ‘Transport infrastructure developments’ in Chapter 10) reported on the intention of the Costa Rican government, and especially of President Carlos Alvarado and the First Lady, Claudia Dobles, to decarbonise the country. One pillar of their strategy, for which the First Lady is directly responsible, is their efforts to convert the country’s fleet of motor vehicles from oil to electricity.

A report in the Tico Times (an English language online newspaper on Costa Rica) states that the country added 727 new electric vehicles during 2020, giving the country a total of 3,106. 330 of the 727 were purchased by the government and assigned to public institutions.

As the Presidency suggests, Costa Rica is undoubtedly a leader in this field in Central America, and also in Latin America. But the total of 3,106 is only a fraction – less than 0.3% to be a little more precise – of the total motorised vehicles registered in the country.

The intent of the government, however, is shown clearly in the growing number of electric vehicle charging stations which now number around 120 and have a countrywide coverage. The PlugShare website identifies these EV charging stations as shown on the map below.

The intent is important and undeniable, but there is a very long way to go.