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How used car exports to Africa could become the development opportunity of the decade

In News

In areas where government budgets for public transport infrastructure and operations are limited, the ability to move people and goods depends on the availability of affordable vehicles. Motorized transport is thus a lifeline, providing access to health services, to education and work, and to new opportunities.

While individual mobility is mostly covered with two- and three wheelers in large parts of low- and medium-income countries (LMICs), cars and vans, especially as taxis and other communal modes of transport, help offer mobility – and with it, social mobility.

High-quality used cars imported into LMICs could be (and already are) therefore an opportunity for such countries. However, the costs are becoming ever more visible: carbon emissions and air pollutants are on the increase, respiratory health conditions are on the rise, roads are unsafe.

While many developed markets are aligned on decarbonization of cars in the next 10-15 years, a truly just net zero transition requires accountability for the outdated carpool that LMICs are left with. And without decarbonization of road transport everywhere, such a transition is impossible.

“Getting more and more electric vehicles on the roads is critical to get to reach net-zero transport emissions quickly. This transition must happen around the globe," says Dr Young Tae Kim, Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF).

"Less-developed regions must not become dumping grounds for unwanted, polluting used vehicles. Preparing emerging economies to go electric will require international collaboration. ITF research on used car exports will help guide policy-makers to address the issue."

Not least, if no proper system is in place to recollect and recycle vehicles at their ultimate end of life, valuable resources are lost and severe pollution issues arise – most notably the terrible burden on up to 800 million children through lead poisoning, caused especially from ill-managed car lead acid batteries.

Whose responsibility is it? It is ours, collectively. "European nations have to stop exporting pollution to the Global South. A lot of responsibility lies with European and national governments that must close the – often – illegal export of old cars that are no longer fit for EU roads,” says Julia Poliscanova, Senior Director at Transport & Environment.

“European end-of-life of vehicles (ELV) rules are about to be reformed in 2023, which offers a key opportunity to tackle this. Digital tools are needed to trace car movements across and beyond Europe, and stricter penalties for illegal import of polluted vehicles.”

Here we summarise why and how we can drive equity on roads in both the Global North and the Global South, together.

Africa is the ultimate destination for some 40% of used light-duty vehicles. Central Asia receives another sizable chunk. Half of these cars do not meet the fuel economy, exhaust emissions, and safety standards imposed by their original home countries today.

Kept in use, they become a major source of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants exacerbate because fuel quality poured into these old engines is unregulated and, hence, poor. Conversely, poor fuels pose a challenge for more modern vehicles, so both issues need addressing simultaneously. The result is deadly for the many families practically living alongside roadways, as alerted by the World Health Organization.

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