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This Is Where Dirty Old Cars Go to Die


With each passing year, emissions from cars keep rising. Global carbon emissions from passenger road vehicles measured 2.5 gigatonnes in 2000. By 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, that had increased to 3.6 gigatonnes . The reason? People keep buying gas-guzzlers. Around 15 million new vehicles were sold in the United States in 2021, up 2.5 percent from an unusually low number in 2020. In the UK, 1.65 million new vehicles rolled off dealer lots. The good news? Some people are trading in their fossil fuel vehicles for cleaner alternatives. Nearly half a million of Americans bought a fully electric vehicle (EV) last year, while nearly 750,000 EVs were sold in the UK. And EVs accounted for 8.3 percent of new light vehicle sales worldwide last year. But trading in a Toyota Corolla for a Toyota Prius isn’t the full story—mainly because that Corolla doesn’t simply disappear. While some old internal combustion engine vehicles get sent to auto dismantlers that break them down safely, many don’t. That traded-in Corolla likely gets put on a cargo ship and moved further down the value chain. “It depends where you are in the world as to where your secondhand cars go,” says Sheila Watson, deputy director for environment and research at the FIA Foundation, a nonprofit campaigning to improve air quality. Western Europe’s old vehicles generally get packed up and shipped off to Eastern Europe. When they’ve reached the end of their useful life there, but are still roadworthy, they go south to Africa. North America’s unwanted cars travel south to developing countries in South America; Asia’s vehicles get shipped around the continent until they’re deemed unpalatable for consumers there, then they go to Africa. Between 2015 and 2020, consumers around the world bought 10.2 million electric vehicles . But during the same time period, 23 million used light duty vehicles (LDVs)—cars, vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks—were exported. Two-thirds are sent to developing countries, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). And when they arrive on the other side of the world, they keep on polluting. It’s an age-old principle: Out of sight, out of mind. Except the planet doesn’t work that way. “The whole world’s got to move, somehow,” says Watson. In London, the dirtiest vehicles are now banned from the vast majority of the city’s roads. Successive city councils in Amsterdam have pushed cars out from the city center, making the hub of the Dutch capital a haven for bikes and pedestrians. Oslo plans to ban all fossil-fuel-powered vehicles from its city boundaries by 2026. Yet almost as quickly as these polluting vehicles vanish from one city, they appear in another. The shift toward clean air policies is also unevenly spread across the global north. For every Oslo or London, there are other cities in Europe and North America laying down new roads and filling them with polluting vehicles. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany, believes that the fixation on third- or fourth-hand vehicle imports in the developing world can be a distraction from the main cause of vehicle pollution: 90 percent of cars worldwide are sold in Canada, China, Europe, and the United States. But as EV sales in wealthier nations increase, there is a risk that yet more polluting cars will make their way to the developing world. Africa already receives one in four used LDVs from the global supply—between 2015 and 2020 the continent imported around 5.5 million used vehicles in all. “There are a lot of really cheap cars,” says Dudenhöffer, with many going through three or four owners in their lifetime. Of 146 developing countries the UNEP surveyed in 2020, just 18 had banned the import of used vehicles. Only 47 countries had what the UNEP deemed “good” or “very good” policies on the import of used LDVs. That has since improved, with a November 2021 update finding that 62 countries had good or very good policies. In part, that’s down to legislative changes: In January 2021, 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States introduced a directive that required any imported vehicles to meet the equivalent of Euro 4/IV emissions standards. This limited the polluting rate of vehicles sold after 2005, with no vehicles older than 10 years allowed into the countries. That age cap is important. Many of the cars on Africa’s roads would be hard to sell outside the continent. “These vehicles can be quite old,” says Rob de Jong, head of the UNEP’s mobility unit. “We found the average age of these vehicles could be 16, 17, or 18 years old before they start their lives in African countries.” Such old vehicles are theoretically not subject to US anti-pollution rules introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency in the last decade. Nor are they subject to planet-saving standards introduced by the European Union in the early 2000s that drastically cut down the amount of pollutants coming out of tailpipes. As well as shifting the source of globally destructive pollution elsewhere, the trade in old vehicles exacerbates air quality issues 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 out,” says Watson. “Your air quality will get better. Theirs will get worse.” The proportion of people living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution in London, for example, has dropped 94 percent since 2016 . In the last decade, air quality in cities like Kampala, Uganda’s capital, has gone in the opposite direction . Pointing the finger of blame at the countries accepting shipments of aging vehicles is only identifying part of the problem—the cars have to get there in the first place. “It’s a joint responsibility between importers and exporters,” says de Jong. And solving that problem will require some major changes to how the auto industry operates. One solution would be to bring down the price of new electric vehicles so more people can afford them. It’s a model that’s seen success elsewhere: Norway has managed to increase EV adoption through generous tax breaks . Another solution would be to ensure the pipeline of used EVs gets to developing countries quicker. De Jong says developed countries could implement policies that prevent the export of vehicles older than eight years. “That would mean the developing world automatically electrifies eight years after the developed world,” he says. Such a development would be welcome, says Watson, but she worries that people in the developing world would be denied access to affordable cars as a result. And cutting car imports to developing countries can backfire in other ways: Dudenhöffer points out that every vehicle—of any type—imported into a developing country is a shot in the arm for that country’s GDP, making it more likely that people can afford newer, less polluting cars in the future. “If one car or another goes to Africa, that’s not ideal, however in the total balance it doesn’t really matter,” he says. “It’s very important to have electric vehicles, or CO 2 -neutral cars, in [non-African] regions.” And that means China, Europe, and North America need to rapidly slow the production of new gas-guzzlers. “Unless the whole world reduces its emissions on the global vehicle fleet, we have a climate problem,” says de Jong. “As we speak, every day, every year, emissions from the global vehicle fleet are still increasing. If we don’t do this worldwide, we’re not going to make the climate targets we set ourselves.”

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