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Global Warming

Getting rid of an old car? Environmental problems often go with it

New York, USA

A tree engulfs the bumper of a classic car in a junkyard in White, Ga., USA, June 3, 2015. Dumped vehicles cause environmental problems for all countries, and dumping will increase as fossil fuel automotives are replaced. (Raymond McCrea Jones/The New York Times)

New York Times Reporting by Tanya Mohn

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, Kenya.

“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,” 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,” 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 2015-18, about 80% 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 in Glasgow, Scotland. New data for 208 countries will be included. South Korea was added as a major exporter. From 2015-20, the share of used vehicles from the four largest exporters was about 49% from the European Union, 26% from Japan, 18% from the United States and 8% from South Korea.

Older combustion engine vehicles

“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.”

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% of the motorization likely to occur in developing nations.

“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, 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.

Cars may have been tampered with

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 air bags 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,” 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, 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,” 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, Ward said, “you can transform the situation. It should be a level playing field between good secondhand vehicles and new ones, absolutely globally.”

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 Fernández, 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% of exported vehicles to the continent don’t fulfill minimum emission standards criteria.

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, de Jong said. “Agreeing on a set of regulations would be a massive benefit to the environment and road safety.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.