United Nation Report: Environmental impacts of the export of used vehicles to the developing world

According to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), millions of used cars, vans and minibuses exported from Europe, the United States and Japan to the developing world are of poor quality, contributing significantly to air pollution and hindering efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.  

The report shows that between 2015 and 2018, 14 million used light-duty vehicles were exported worldwide. Some 80 per cent went to low- and middle-income countries, with more than half going to Africa.

Used Vehicles and the Environment – A Global Overview of Used Light Duty Vehicles: Flow, Scale and Regulation, the first-ever report of its kind, calls for action to fill the current policy vacuum with the adoption of harmonized minimum quality standards that will ensure used vehicles contribute to cleaner, safer fleets in importing countries.

The fast-growing global vehicle fleet is a major contributor to air pollution and climate change; globally, the transport sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, vehicle emissions are a significant source of the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that are major causes of urban air pollution.

The report found that African countries imported the largest number of used vehicles (40 per cent) in the period studied, followed by countries in Eastern Europe (24 per cent), Asia-Pacific (15 per cent), the Middle East (12 per cent) and Latin America (nine per cent).

Poor quality used vehicles also lead to more road accidents. According to the report, many of the countries with “very weak” or “weak” used vehicles regulations, including Malawi, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Burundi, also have very high road traffic death rates. Countries that have introduced used vehicles regulations also see safer fleets and fewer accidents.

UNEP, with the support of the UN Road Safety Trust Fund and others, is part of a new initiative supporting the introduction of minimum used vehicles standards. The initiative’s first focus will be countries on the African continent; a number of African countries have already put in place minimum quality standards – including Morocco, Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Mauritius – with many more showing interests in joining the initiative.

“The impact of old polluting vehicles is clear. Air quality data in Accra confirms that transport is the main source of air pollution in our cities. This is why Ghana is prioritizing cleaner fuels and vehicle standards, as well as electric bus opportunities. Ghana was the first country in the West Africa region to shift to low sulphur fuels and this month has imposed a 10-year age limit for used vehicle imports,” said Prof. Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Ghana’s Minister for Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation.

Recently, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set cleaner fuels and vehicle standards from January 2021. ECOWAS members also encouraged the introduction of age limits for used vehicles. The report concludes that more research is needed to detail further the impacts of the trade in used vehicles, including that of heavy duty used vehicles.