This is where the dirty old cars go to die

The transition to air quality policies is also unevenly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere. For every Oslo or London, there are other cities in Europe and North America building new roads and filling them with polluting vehicles. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Automotive Research Center in Duisburg, Germany, believes that the fixation on imports of third- or fourth-hand vehicles in developing countries can divert attention from the root cause of automotive pollution: 90 % of cars in the world are sold in Canada, China, Europe and the United States.

But as sales of electric vehicles in rich countries increase, there is a risk that even more polluting cars will head to developing countries. Africa already receives one in four used LCVs of global supply – between 2015 and 2020, the continent imported around 5.5 million used vehicles in total. “There are a lot of really cheap cars out there,” says Dudenhöffer, many of whom have had three or four owners in their lifetime.

Of 146 developing countries surveyed by UNEP in 2020, only 18 had banned the import of used vehicles. Only 47 countries had policies rated “good” or “very good” by UNEP for importing used LCVs. This has since improved, with a November 2021 update finding that 62 countries had good or very good policies.

This is partly due to legislative changes: in January 2021, 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States introduced a directive requiring all imported vehicles to meet the equivalent of Euro 4 emissions standards /IV. This limited the pollution rate of vehicles sold after 2005, with no vehicle over 10 years old allowed in the countries.

This age limit is important. Many cars on African roads would be difficult to sell outside the continent. “These vehicles can be quite old,” says Rob de Jong, head of UNEP’s mobility unit. “We found that the average age of these vehicles could be 16, 17 or 18 years old before they start life in African countries.” These old vehicles are theoretically not subject to the American anti-pollution rules introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency over the last decade. They are also not subject to the planet-saving standards introduced by the European Union in the early 2000s which significantly reduce the amount of pollutants exiting the tailpipes.

In addition to shifting the source of the world’s destructive pollution elsewhere, the trade in older vehicles is exacerbating air quality problems in the developing world. “If you take all the dirty cars off your street and sell them to poorer countries, you can, in effect, ship the air quality problem,” Watson says. “Your air quality will improve. Theirs will get worse. The proportion of people living in areas where air pollution is illegal in London, for example, has fallen by 94% since 2016. Over the past decade, air quality in cities like Kampala, the Ugandan capital, went in the opposite direction.

Pointing to countries that accept shipments of aging vehicles only identifies part of the problem: cars have to get there first. “It’s a joint responsibility between importers and exporters,” says de Jong. And solving this problem will require major changes in the way the automotive industry operates.

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