How to stop used cars from being dumped in Africa

Afghanis look at vehicles imported from Japan at a workshop to be reassembled and sold to local market in Helmand, Afghanistan. (Credit: Keystone /Watan Yar)

Millions of used and poor-quality cars, vans, and minibuses are being exported from rich countries to the developing world, contributing significantly to air pollution and climate change, a new UN report has found.

Between 2015 and 2018, Europe, the US and Japan exported in total just under 14 million used cars worldwide. Some 70 per cent went to low and-middle income countries, with more than half going to Africa, according to the report released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The study of 146 countries found that most developing countries have limited or no regulations on governing the age, quality and safety of imported used vehicles. As well as being unsafe on the road, these cars contribute to worsening air pollution and climate change. Executive Director of UNEP Inger Andersen said:

“The current way the used vehicle market operates means that developing countries, particularly in Africa, serve as the dumping ground for cars that are no longer considered safe enough or clean enough for developed countries.”

To counter the environmental toll of global trade in used vehicles, the UN agency called for regulations and harmonised minimum standards. To echo this effort, the Netherlands published a sister study illustrating how the EU alone exports each year over a million considered “end of life vehicles” to African countries.

Many used vehicles shipped from Dutch ports to Africa are outdated – 25 per cent of used vehicles exported to Nigeria are almost 20 years old - and contribute to worsening air quality on the continent, found the Dutch experts. Overall, they say around 80 per cent of cars exported to developing countries fail to meet safety or environmental standards.

Why is this an important issue? According to the International Energy Agency, the global vehicles fleet – 1.1 billion motor vehicles -is set to double or even triple by 2050. More than 90 per cent of this growth, fuelled by imported used vehicles, will take place in developing countries. Africa which imports the largest number (40 per cent) is of main concern because of its very low levels of motorisation. While some developing countries have banned their importation or introduced effective policies, most have not. Regulation is therefore an important part of achieving local and global targets on climate change, air quality and road safety.

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In Nigeria and Kenya, for example, more than 80 percent of added vehicles are used ones. (Credit: UNEP)

Why are used vehicles so bad? One could argue that shipping used vehicles to the developing world is better than manufacturing new ones. There are several arguments against this way of thinking. They are:

  • Poor quality: they no longer meet the environment and safety standards of the exporting country;

  • No longer roadworthy in the exporting country and a cause of road accidents;

  • Missing key environment and safety technologies (often illegally removed).

On the other hand, used vehicles that meet minimum emissions standards can:

  • Reduce exhaust pollution by 90 per cent.

  • Be significantly more fuel-efficient, making them cheaper and cleaner.

  • Improve road safety due to advanced safety features.

Telling figures.  Air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths each year and fleet vehicles are a major contributor to air pollution, in some cities even the biggest contributor, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The transport sector is currently responsible for a quarter of all energy related climate emissions. This is set to increase to one-third by 2050, growing faster than any other sector.

Good and bad solutions. Banning the trade of used vehicles is not necessarily the solution as new vehicles imported or locally produced by developing countries are often not as advanced in terms of environment and safety as quality used vehicles. Access to affordable quality used vehicles can rather help them move to cleaner and more sustainable mobility. The UNEP with the support of the UN Road Safety Trust Fund therefore recommends minimum emissions standards (like the EURO 4 standard) and age regulation (five to eight years). It calls for both importing and exporting countries to put on a strong inspection and enforcement to ensure compliance.

Measures taken. Many developing countries are reviewing their current regulations. From 1 January 2021 only used vehicles that meet EURO 4 emissions standards will be permitted into the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Ghana which imports five per cent of used vehicles in Africa (80’000) was also the first country in its region to shift to low sulphur fuels and imposed a 10-year age limit for used vehicle imports last month. Ghana Ghana’s minister for environment, science, technology & innovation, Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, said:

“Air quality data in Accra confirms that transport is the main source of air pollution in our cities. This is why Ghana is prioritizing cleaner fuels and vehicle standards, as well as electric bus opportunities (…) It's clear that we need several policies, not just one policy, to be able to incentivize the input of cleaner and more efficient vehicles.”

Other countries like Morocco, Algeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Mauritius have implemented age and emissions measures promoting access to high-quality used vehicles, including hybrid and electric cars, at affordable prices.

On the exporting side, the Netherlands is looking into qualifying not up to standards used vehicles as waste to ban their export as well as addressing the issue within EU context. Dutch Minister for the Environment Stientje Van Veldhoven:

“We need a coordinated European approach and close cooperation between European and African governments (…) We can only close this gap, if we work on both sides of the trade.”

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Export of used vehicles to developing world has considerable environmental impact. (Credit: UNEP)

UNEP is planning to develop a similar report on used heavy duty vehicles (trucks and busses) in 2021.