This is where dirty old cars die

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With every pass year, emissions from cars continue to rise. Global carbon emissions from passenger cars in 2000 were 2.5 gigatons. By 2018, the latest year for which data are available, these emissions had increased 3.6 gigatons. Cause? People keep buying gas guzzlers. Around 15 million new cars were sold in the United States in 2021, up 2.5% from 2020, when it was unusually low. In Great Britain 1.65 million new cars rolled down from the dealer lots. Good news? Some people are swapping out their fossil fuel vehicles for cleaner alternatives. Nearly half a million Americans bought an all-electric vehicle (EV) last year, while nearly 750,000 electric vehicles were sold in the UK. And electric cars made up 8.3 percent sales of new passenger cars worldwide last year. But swapping a Toyota Corolla for a Toyota Prius isn’t everything, mainly because Corollas don’t just disappear.

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While some older internal combustion engine vehicles are sent to car breakers who dismantle them safely, many do not. This Trade-in Corolla is likely to be placed on a freighter and move further up the value chain. “Where your used cars go depends on where you are in the world,” says Sheila Watson, deputy director of environment and research at the FIA ​​Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for better air quality. Old cars from Western Europe are usually packaged and sent to Eastern Europe. When they reach the end of their service life, but they are still serviceable, they go south to Africa. Unwanted North American vehicles travel south to developing South America; Vehicles from Asia are shipped across the continent until deemed unpalatable by local consumers, and then shipped to Africa.

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Between 2015 and 2020, consumers worldwide bought 10.2 million electric vehicles. But in the same time period 23 million used light duty vehicles (LDVs)—cars, vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks—were exported. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), two-thirds go to developing countries. And when they arrive on the other side of the world, they continue to pollute the environment.

This is the age-old principle: out of sight, out of mind. But the planet doesn’t work that way. “The whole world has to move in some way,” says Watson. In London, the dirtiest cars are now banned from the vast majority of city roads. Successive city councils in Amsterdam have pushed cars out of the city centre, turning the Dutch capital into a cyclist’s and walker’s paradise. Oslo plans to ban by 2026, all fossil fuel vehicles will be out of city limits. However, almost as quickly as these polluting vehicles disappear from one city, they appear in another.

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The transition to a clean air policy is also unevenly distributed across the north. For every Oslo or London, there are other cities in Europe and North America where new roads are being laid and filled with polluting vehicles. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany, believes that obsession with importing used cars in developing countries may detract from the main cause of pollution: 90 percent of cars worldwide are sold in Canada, China, Europe and the United States.

But as sales of electric vehicles rise in richer countries, there is a risk that more polluting vehicles will find their way to developing countries. Africa already receives one in four used LDVs from global shipments – between 2015 and 2020, the continent imported a total of about 5.5 million used vehicles. “There are a lot of really cheap cars out there,” says Dudenhöffer, “many of them have had three or four owners in their lifetime. Of the 146 developing countries surveyed by UNEP in 2020, only 18 have banned the import of used cars. Only 47 countries had policies that UNEP described as “good” or “very good” for used car imports. This has since improved, with 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 of the Economic Community of West African States submitted a directive this required all imported vehicles to meet Euro 4/IV emission standards. This limited the level of pollution of the environment by cars sold after 2005, and prohibited the importation of cars older than 10 years into countries.

This age limit is important. Many cars on the roads in Africa would be hard to sell outside of the continent. “These vehicles can be quite old,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UNEP Mobility. “We found that the average age of these cars could be 16, 17 or 18 years before they start their lives in African countries.” Such old cars are theoretically not subject to United States pollution control regulations introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency in the last decade. They are also exempt from planetary conservation standards introduced by the European Union in the early 2000s, which dramatically reduced the amount of pollutants coming out of tailpipes.

The old car trade not only moves the source of globally devastating pollution elsewhere, it also exacerbates air quality problems in developing countries. “If you take all the dirty cars off the streets and sell them to poorer countries, you can basically get rid of the air quality problem,” says Watson. “The air quality will improve. They will be worse.” The proportion of people living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution in London, for example, has increased. fell 94 percent since 2016. Over the past decade, air quality has deteriorated in cities like Kampala, the capital of Uganda. gone in the opposite direction.

Pointing the finger at countries accepting batches of obsolete cars is only pointing to part of the problem – cars have to get there first. “This is a joint responsibility of importers and exporters,” says de Jong. And solving this problem will require some major changes in the way the automotive industry operates.

One solution could be to lower the price of new electric vehicles so more people can afford them. This model has been successful in other countries: Norway has been able to increase the adoption of electric vehicles by generous tax breaks. Another solution could be to ensure that the flow of used electric vehicles gets to developing countries faster. De Jong says that developed countries can implement policies that ban the export of cars over eight years old. “That would mean that the developing world would automatically electrify eight years after the developed world,” he says. This development is welcome, Watson says, but she fears that as a result, people in developing countries will be denied access to affordable cars.

And reducing car imports to developing countries could backfire in other ways: Dudenhöffer notes that every car—of whatever type—imported to a developing country is a shot in the arm for that country’s GDP, making it more likely that people can afford more new, less polluting vehicles in the future. “If this or that car goes to Africa, it’s not ideal, but in the overall balance it doesn’t really matter,” he says. “It is very important to have electric vehicles or CO2– neutral vehicles [non-African] regions”. And this means that China, Europe and North America need to quickly reduce the production of new gas guzzlers. “If the whole world doesn’t reduce its emissions in the global car fleet, we will have a climate problem,” says de Jong. “As we speak, every day, every year, emissions from the global vehicle fleet continue to rise. If we don’t do this around the world, we won’t achieve the climate goals we set for ourselves.”


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