Dirty Car Exports Threaten Climate Goals

Trading in your gas-busting vehicle for one with lower emissions doesn’t always reduce pollution. That’s prompting global efforts to establish second-use standards.,


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This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which looks at efforts around the world to make a difference.

When consumers in the United States and other wealthy nations shed their gas-fueled cars for more environmentally friendly, cleaner ones, like hybrids and electrics, they feel like they are being good citizens, helping to improve air quality and make the planet better.

But where do their old cars go and what harm can they cause?

“Global dumping of substandard, ‘dirty’ cars is a huge problem,” said Rob de Jong, head of the sustainable mobility unit for the United Nations Environment Program, based in Nairobi.

“An increasing number of poor quality used cars are being shipped from the United States, the European Union and Japan to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia,” Mr. de Jong said. The trade is largely unregulated. And that is a problem, he said.

“Many cars don’t meet the safety and environmental standards in host countries, Mr. de Jong said.

His unit released “Used Vehicles and the Environment” last year, which found that millions of poor quality, older used cars, vans and minibuses threaten health, safety and the environment, “contributing significantly to air pollution and hindering efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

In an analysis of 146 countries, about two-thirds were found to have “weak” or “very weak” policies for regulating the import of used vehicles. Between 2015 and 2018, about 80 percent of the 14 million used light-duty vehicles exported worldwide went to low- and middle-income countries.

An update to the report will be presented at COP26, the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 in Glasgow. New data for 208 countries will be included. South Korea was added as a major exporter. From 2015 through 2020, the share of used vehicles from the four largest exporters was about 49 percent from the European Union, 26 percent from Japan, 18 percent from the United States and 8 percent from South Korea.


A Hyundai Motor quay in Ulsan, South Korea, was packed with cars set to be exported earlier this year. Credit…Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock

“The phenomenon was already significant 10 years ago,” said Pierpaolo Cazzola, adviser for energy, technology and environmental sustainability at the International Transport Forum, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “I think that the problem could get worse.”

Mr. Cazzola said developed nations’ transition to low- and zero- emission vehicles exacerbated the problem. “They are more likely to retain them at the end of their useful life for second life use and the recycling of valuable battery materials,” he said. “If left unchecked, this could flood emerging economies with older combustion engine vehicles and may delay the speed of the global response to climate change.”

The global fleet of light duty vehicles — primarily passenger cars — is expected to double by 2050, the report noted, with more than 90 percent of the motorization likely to occur in developing nations.

The Stakes at the U.N. Climate Summit

About 20,000 people will attend COP26, a climate change conference hosted by the United Nations starting Oct. 31 in Glasgow. Participants are seeking to set new targets for cutting emissions from burning coal, oil and gas. Here are a few things to keep in mind before the gathering begins:

What Is COP26?: Here is everything you need to know about this pivotal conference.Tracking Climate Policies: Researchers have been measuring progress to date in combating climate change. The data offers reasons for both hope and alarm.Tracking Promises: An accounting of the climate pledges made by countries in the years since the Paris accord found that they are not enough to avoid drastic impacts from climate change.The Catastrophic Pathway: Devastating wildfires. Persistent drought. Record flooding. Heat waves. Climate change and its effects are accelerating. The Science of Climate Change, Explained: When talking of climate change, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. But the science of climate change is solid and widely agreed upon.

“Not all secondhand vehicles are bad,” said David Ward, president of the Global New Car Assessment Program, a nonprofit based in London. They can exceed the safety requirements of new cars and exporting them can create access to affordable clean technology and advanced safety features. But when countries have poor or no vehicle regulations for emission or crash behavior for new cars, he said, “you’ve got a problem, because the new ones may actually be worse.”

He recommends that importing governments apply the same minimum standards for used vehicles that they have for new ones, and that governments refuse to import any vehicles, new or old, that do not meet those standards. Manufacturers must meet the minimum requirements set by countries in which they produce vehicles, but typically do not exceed them.

United Nations standards — covering safety and to a lesser extent the environment — are voluntary; governments can choose whether or not to apply them. Many countries now follow versions of European vehicle emission standards, Mr. Ward said.

New Zealand, which gets many used vehicles from Japan, is an example of successful regulation, he said. Legislation, periodically updated, requires imported used cars to comply with European, Japanese or U.N. standards.

But even if a vehicle is road-worthy before it leaves the exporting country, under the radar market forces can intervene. It’s not uncommon for catalytic converters — emission control devices — to be stripped for precious metals, and for safety equipment like airbags to be removed for resale. It’s critical for importing countries to conduct port-of-entry inspections “to see if cars have been tampered with,” Mr. Ward said.

“Random spot checks can be cost effective and a big disincentive to the people who are trying to cheat the system,” he said.

Other recommendations for combating the problem include the idea that countries with regulations in place share technical knowledge and training, and help importing countries establish databases of vehicle histories, which is becoming more available as data is digitized, Mr. Ward said. For example, a vehicle identification number, or VIN, allows inspectors to determine the age of a vehicle, standards it met when new and sales history.

“All of that data is going to become much easier to find and is potentially very valuable information for receiving countries,” Mr. Ward said. “We should be able to envision a world where the guy in Mombasa or in the port in Tanzania can access all of this data.”

If that mix of policies happened systematically over two or three years, Mr. Ward said, “you can transform the situation. It should be a level playing field between good second hand vehicles and new ones, absolutely globally.”


Cars and trailers for hauling cattle drive near Shahpur Kanjra Mandi cattle market in July in Lahore, Pakistan.Credit…Betsy Joles/Getty Images

Many experts say exporting nations can help by recycling and prohibiting the export of vehicles older than five to eight years and those that no longer meet their environmental and safety standards, and by providing detailed information about every vehicle.

“This is already available in some countries,” said Eduard Fernandez, executive director of CITA, the International Motor Vehicle Inspection Committee, a nonprofit based in Brussels that helps governments and organizations with vehicle compliance. The Dutch Department for Transport does just that, providing data like the emissions level or recent inspection dates for all the country’s vehicles.

A recent report by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, “Used vehicles exported to Africa,” showed that 80 percent of exported vehicles to the continent don’t fulfill minimum emission standards criteria.

Nongovernmental groups also can have an impact. The Association of European Vehicle and Driver Registration Authorities, for example, established a network to share data about used vehicles between European countries. “That is a model to consider at a worldwide level,” Mr. Fernandez said.

The global trade in used vehicles report consistently found that in countries that introduced regulations to restrict vehicle age and emissions, like Morocco or the Ivory Coast, the number of vehicles imported did not decrease, but quality improved. Countries that have regulations for used vehicles also saw safer fleets and fewer crashes.

Discussions are underway to establish quality standards for used vehicles. The European Union is in the process of revising its end-of-life vehicle directive; some U.N. members states are consulting about a possible resolution; several organizations that represent African countries are developing national and regional standards, and a solution to harmonize standards globally will likely start next year, Mr. de Jong said. “Agreeing on a set of regulations would be a massive benefit to the environment and road safety.”

Still, the progress being made is not fast enough to address climate change, said Sheila Watson, deputy director of the FIA Foundation, a London-based nonprofit that works with governments around the world to support safe and sustainable mobility.

“We all too often are able to console ourselves with the idea that if we’re improving what we’re doing, what happens beyond that is not really our problem,” Ms. Watson said. But what benefits one place could worsen conditions elsewhere. “It’s a joint responsibility,” she said. “As long as dirty vehicles exist, our climate problem isn’t helped at all.”

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