Getting rid of an old car? Environmental issues often go hand in hand

New York Times reporting by Tanya Mohn

When consumers in the United States and other wealthy countries ditch their gas-powered cars for more environmentally friendly and cleaner cars, like hybrids and electrics, they feel like good citizens, helping to improve air quality and make the planet a better place.

But where do their old cars go and what harm can they cause?

“The global dumping of substandard and ‘dirty’ cars is a huge problem,” said Rob de Jong, head of the UN Environment Programme’s sustainable mobility unit, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“A growing number of low-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’s a problem, he says.

“Many cars do not meet the safety and environmental standards of host countries,” de Jong said.

His unit published “Used Vehicles and the Environment” last year, which revealed that millions of shoddy used cars, vans and minibuses threaten health, safety and the environment, “contributing significantly to air pollution and hampering 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 importation of used vehicles. Between 2015 and 2018, around 80% of the 14 million used light vehicles exported globally went to low- and middle-income countries.

An update of the report will be presented to COP26, 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. New data for 208 countries will be included. South Korea was added as a major exporter. From 2015 to 2020, the share of used vehicles of the four largest exporters was around 49% for the European Union, 26% for Japan, 18% for the United States and 8% for 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 Cooperation Organization and economic development. “I think the problem could get worse.”

Cazzola said developed countries’ transition to low- and zero-emission vehicles has exacerbated the problem. “They are more likely to save them at the end of their useful life for a second life and recycling of valuable battery materials,” he said. “If left unchecked, this could flood emerging economies with older combustion engine vehicles and set back the speed of the global response to climate change.”

The global fleet of light vehicles – mostly passenger cars – is expected to double by 2050, the report notes, with more than 90% of motorization likely to occur in developing countries.

“Not all used vehicles are bad,” said David Ward, chairman of the Global New Car Assessment Program, a London-based nonprofit. They can exceed new car safety requirements and exporting them can create access to affordable clean technology and advanced safety features. But when countries have poor or no emissions or crash behavior regulations for new cars, he said, “you have a problem because new ones may actually be worse.”

It recommends that importing governments apply the same minimum standards for used vehicles that they have for new vehicles, and that governments refuse to import any vehicle, new or old, that does not meet these standards. Manufacturers must meet the minimum requirements set by the countries in which they produce vehicles, but generally do not exceed them.

UN standards — covering safety and, to a lesser extent, the environment — are voluntary; governments can choose to apply them or not. Many countries now follow versions of European vehicle emission standards, Ward said.

New Zealand, which receives 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 UN standards.

Cars may have been tampered with

But even if a vehicle is roadworthy before leaving the exporting country, discrete market forces may be at play. It is not uncommon for catalytic converters – emissions control devices – to be stripped for precious metals and for safety equipment such as air bags to be removed for resale. It is essential for importing countries to carry out inspections at ports of entry “to see if the cars have been tampered with,” Ward said.

“Random spot checks can be cost effective and provide a strong deterrent to people trying to cheat the system,” he said.

Other recommendations to combat the problem include the idea that countries with regulations in place share technical knowledge and training, and help importing countries establish vehicle history databases, which are increasingly becoming more available as the data is digitized, Ward said. For example, a vehicle identification number, or VIN, allows inspectors to determine a vehicle’s age, the standards it met when new, and sales history.

“All of this data is going to become much easier to find and is potentially very valuable information for host countries,” Ward said. “We should be able to imagine a world where the guy in Mombasa or the port in Tanzania can access all this data.”

If this mix of policies happened consistently over two or three years, Ward said, “you can transform the situation. It should be a level playing field between good used vehicles and new, absolutely on a global scale.

Many experts say exporting countries can help by recycling and banning the export of vehicles over five to eight years old and those that no longer meet their environmental and safety standards, and by providing detailed information on each vehicle. .

“It’s already available in some countries,” said Eduard Fernández, executive director of CITA, the International Motor Vehicle Inspection Board, a Brussels-based non-profit organization that helps governments and organizations ensure vehicle compliance. The Dutch Ministry of Transport does just that by providing data such as the level of emissions or recent inspection dates for all vehicles in the country.

A recent report by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, “Used vehicles exported to Africa”, showed that 80% of vehicles exported to the continent do not meet the criteria of the standards. minimum emissions.

Discussions are underway to establish quality standards for used vehicles. The European Union is in the process of revising its directive on end-of-life vehicles; some UN member states consult on a possible resolution; several organizations that represent African countries are developing national and regional standards, and a solution to harmonize standards globally will likely begin next year, de Jong said. “Agreeing on a set of regulations would be a huge benefit for the environment and road safety.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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