This is where dirty old cars go to die
With each passing year, emissions from cars keep on increasing. In 2000, global carbon emissions from passenger road vehicles were measured at 2.5 gigatons. As of 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, this had increased to 3.6 gigatons. The Reason? People keep buying gas-gujjars. About 15 million new vehicles were sold in the United States in 2021, up 2.5 percent from the unusually low number in 2020. In the UK, 1.65 million new vehicles closed dealer lots. Good News? Some are trading in their fossil fuel vehicles for cleaner alternatives. Nearly half a million Americans bought a fully electric vehicle (EV) last year, while around 750,000 EVs were sold in the UK. And last year, EVs accounted for 8.3 percent of new light vehicle sales worldwide. But trading in a Toyota Corolla for a Toyota Prius isn’t the whole story—mainly because the Corolla doesn’t disappear.
While some older internal combustion engine vehicles are sent to auto dismantlers who dismantle them safely, many do not. That trade-in Corolla is probably put on a cargo ship and further down the value chain. “It depends where in the world you are, where your old cars go,” says Sheila Watson, deputy director for environment and research at the FIA Foundation, a nonprofit campaign to improve air quality. Old vehicles from Western Europe are usually packaged and shipped to Eastern Europe. When they have reached the end of their useful life there but are still roadworthy, they move south to Africa. Unwanted cars from North America travel to developing countries in South America; Vehicles from Asia are shipped around the continent until they are deemed unsuitable for consumers there, then travel to Africa.
Between 2015 and 2020, consumers worldwide bought 10.2 million electric vehicles. But 23 million used light duty vehicles (LDVs)—cars, vans, SUVs and pickup trucks—were exported during the same period. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), two-thirds are sent to developing countries. And when they reach 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. Watson says, “Somehow the whole world has to move on. In London, the dirtiest vehicles are now banned on most city streets. Persistent city councils in Amsterdam have pushed cars out of the city centre, making the center of the Dutch capital a haven for bikers and pedestrians. Oslo plans to ban all fossil-fuelled vehicles from its city limits by 2026. Yet almost as soon as these polluting vehicles disappear from one city, they show up in another.
The shift towards clean air policies has also spread unevenly across the global north. For every Oslo or London, there are other cities in Europe and North America laying new roads and filling them with polluting vehicles. Ferdinand Dudenhofer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany, believes that fixation on third- or fourth-hand vehicle imports in developing countries may distract attention from the main cause of vehicle pollution: 90 percent of cars worldwide are in Canada. , sold in China, Europe and the United States.
But as EV sales rise in wealthy countries, there is a risk that even more polluting cars will make their way into the developing world. Africa already receives one in four used LDVs from global supplies—the continent imported about 5.5 million used vehicles between 2015 and 2020. “There are actually very cheap cars,” says Dudenhofer, many of which go through three or four owners in their lifetime. Of the 146 developing countries UNEP made in 2020, just 18 banned the importation of used vehicles. Only 47 countries had “good” or “very good” policies on imports of LDV used by UNEP. This has since improved, with the November 2021 update finding that 62 countries had good or very good policies. In part, this is down to legislative changes: in January 2021, 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States introduced a directive that required any imported vehicle to be equivalent to Euro 4/IV emission standards. Limiting the pollution rate of vehicles sold after the U.S., in which vehicles older than 10 years were not allowed into countries.
That age limit is important. Many cars on the roads of Africa would be difficult to sell outside the continent. “These vehicles can be very old,” says Rob de Jong, head of UNEP’s mobility unit. “We found that the average age of these vehicles may be 16, 17 or 18 years before they start their lives in African countries.” Such older vehicles are theoretically not subject to US anti-pollution regulations 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, which drastically cut down on the amount of pollutants emitted from tailpipes.