Developed countries 'exporting pollution' by trading second-hand vehicles to poorer countries, experts say

Cars sit in traffic in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: Clive Moss / CC BY-NC-ND

Regulating the flow of second-hand cars to developing countries is a crucial, but largely ignored, piece of the transport and development puzzle. If left unchecked, it could see rich economies “exporting pollution” to developing ones, urban transport experts say.

While electric, driverless and connected cars are creating a buzz in the development sector — as was shown at the recent Transforming Transportation conference held in Washington, D.C. — poor people in developing countries are far more likely to own a gas-belching second-hand car than an electric one.

In fact, the majority of African countries import far more used cars than they do new ones: 99 percent of all cars imported to Kenya are second hand, mainly shipped from Japan and Europe, according to United Nations Environment Programme figures. These cars offer an affordable way for people living in developing countries to become mobile, which studies show leads to increases in gross domestic product.

However, many of these used cars emit high levels of pollution, which lead to negative health and environmental impacts linked to climate change and also respiratory conditions caused by breathing in pollution and particulate matter. Older cars are also more likely to fail safety standards and cause accidents. Sourcing spare parts can also pose a challenge, as does scrapping or recycling these older cars so that they do not continue to pollute after they are taken off the roads.

“Exporting very old vehicles to developing countries is basically exporting pollution,” said Rob de Jong, head of transport at UNEP, who explained that cars being shipped to Africa often no longer meet safety and emissions criteria in their country of origin.

Both UNEP and the World Bank are pushing for global and national regulations to improve the fuel efficiency and safety of second-hand vehicle fleets.

“There is an urgent need to regulate this trade because the developing world is motorizing fast — if we add another billion cars to those fleets then we had better make sure today that we have the right framework of regulations in place to make sure that tomorrow we don’t have pollution overboard,” de Jong said.

Experts predict that the number of vehicles in developing countries will increase four- or five-fold by 2050. The trade grew by 14.4 percent between 1997 and 2007, from 1.24 million to 4.7 million, according to a report by the Global Fuel Economy Initiative.  

However, it is very difficult to get specific numbers and these estimates are likely to be on the conservative side, de Jong said. This is partly because the industry is “secretive,” with many vehicles being shipped to Dubai and then re-exported to developing countries, making it difficult to track the exact numbers, he said.

Used cars tend to be worse for the environment than newer ones due to their declining fuel as they age. Considering that the average age of cars imported into Uganda is 16.5 years — and that car will likely be driven for another 20 years — this is “environmental dumping” by the exporting country, according to de Jong.

Air pollution is another major associated problem: The World Health Organization says air pollution causes the premature death of 7 million people every year and fine particles — also known as particulate matter, which enter the bloodstream through the lungs — are the major culprit. Older cars emit far more particulate matter than newer ones.

Developed countries that export these older cars need to take responsibility for their emissions, according to the World Bank’s sustainable transport specialist, Roger Gorham.

“If you don’t know where or how intensively the vehicle you are getting rid of is being used, then you don’t know if your policy of getting fuel efficient cars on your streets is actually reducing fuel emissions or reducing the number of children breathing in particles,” he said.

“If you’re pushing the problem out to African children so they get exposed to emissions then you haven’t resolved the problem, you’ve just displaced it,” Gorham added.

However, regulating imported used cars is not a straightforward issue. On the one hand, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, especially those with car manufacturing industries, have a vested interest in maintaining free and open export channels for their used cars since this drives demand for new ones. On the other side, developing countries want access to affordable cars.

Furthermore, many developing country governments view second-hand vehicles as a “very important mobility option” and a “lifeline” for poorer citizens, according to Jen Oh, a transport specialist at the Work Bank working in Vietnam. Therefore, governments need to be careful before implementing stringent emission and safety measures on used cars since these could penalize poorer car owners who rely on older automobiles, she said.

For de Jong, regulation does not necessarily mean stopping the flow of used vehicles to the developing world. Used cars could offer countries in Africa the opportunity to affordably “leapfrog” to a fleet of cleaner cars. To get there, he would like to see regulations — such as requiring imported cars to be no older than five years — and import taxes that incentivize bringing in hybrid or electric vehicles, such as reforms introduced in Sri Lanka.

In February, UNEP will bring together representatives from both vehicle importing and exporting countries for a meeting in Geneva to start working on voluntary agreements to direct the trade.

The World Bank is also working on the issue. In 2016, it started pilots in Kenya and Ethiopia, working with national government ministries to help them think through the policy, institutional and infrastructure changes needed to enable governments to “comprehensively get a handle on motorization,” according to Gorham. The work involves looking at four main aspects of their vehicle fleet: how clean, efficient and safe the cars are, and how quickly the fleet is growing.

“Policies need to take into account the entire vehicle lifecycle, which means not only regulating cars as they enter the country, but ways of controlling vehicles as they are used, stepping down their usage as they age and become less fuel efficient and more dangerous to operate, as well as how to manage decommissioning and recycling the cars,” Gorham said.

Their results and recommendations will be available later this year.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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