By Brad Plumer © The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » In recent decades, the United States and Europe have gone to considerable lengths to mandate cleaner, more efficient cars at home. But at the same time, they are shipping millions of their oldest and worst-polluting vehicles to poorer countries in a largely unregulated trade that now poses serious health and environmental hazards, the United Nations warned.
The report, by the U.N. Environment Program, is the most detailed look yet at the global trade in secondhand cars, which has historically attracted little scrutiny. From 2015 to 2018, the report found, the United States, the European Union and Japan exported 14 million used passenger cars abroad, with 70% ending up in low-income countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
In theory, this trade can be beneficial: Once older cars are no longer desirable to buyers in wealthy nations, they can have a second life as an affordable transportation option in other countries. In countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, more than 90% of cars bought today are secondhand imports.
But in practice, the report found, many of the cars exported to low-income countries don’t meet even minimum standards for air pollution and are often unsafe to drive. There are few rules in place to govern the quality of the vehicles. In the Netherlands, investigators recently determined, some exported cars have had their pollution controls removed and harvested for the valuable metals they contain before being shipped abroad.
“What we found is not a pretty sight,” said Rob De Jong, an author of the report and head of the U.N. Environment Program’s Sustainable Mobility Unit. “Most of these vehicles are very old, very dirty, very inefficient and unsafe.”
The global trade in used vehicles could have stark consequences for both climate change and public health in the decades ahead, the report’s authors said.
Today, there are about 1 billion cars on the road globally. That number is projected to double by 2050, with much of the growth coming from sales of secondhand vehicles in lower-income countries. Transportation already accounts for one-quarter of humanity’s carbon-dioxide emissions, which are rapidly heating the planet. In many African cities, cars and trucks have become a dominant source of outdoor air pollution, which already kills more than 3 million people worldwide each year.