Between 2015 and 2018, the European Union, Japan, and the United States exported 14 million used vehicles worldwide—40 percent of which went to African countries. The low prices of these vehicles create high demand for them in Africa and other developing regions, but there is a trade-off to the low cost: They are often poor quality and would fail roadworthiness tests in exporting countries. As a result, these vehicles contribute to air pollution and hinder efforts to combat climate change. To explore these issues in more depth, last month the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released the report “Used Vehicles and the Environment,” which analyzes data from 146 countries that import used vehicles and calls for action to regulate trade in used vehicles.
Regulations on car imports, which can include anything from complete import bans to age restrictions and labeling requirements, aim to reduce imports of old and polluting used vehicles and encourage the import of cleaner used vehicles. Figure 1 shows that most African countries have weak or no regulations governing the quality and safety of imported used vehicles. Per UNEP, only nine African countries have a “good” or “very good” regulatory framework for used vehicles, with an additional four countries banning the import of used vehicles entirely—including South Africa, which bans the importation of used vehicles primarily to protect the local motor vehicle manufacturing industry. Notably, as the authors reveal, rules around used car imports that do exist are often poorly enforced.
The most commonly used regulation is an age restriction on imported vehicles: In Africa, 20 countries place a maximum age limit on used vehicle imports. The use of vehicle emissions standards for used vehicle imports is far less common—only four African countries have adopted a used vehicle emissions standard—as is the use of mandatory labeling of used vehicles’ fuel consumption and emissions.
Figure 1. Quality of used vehicle regulatory environment
Source: UNEP, Used Vehicles and the Environment, 2020. Based on data collected from the 146 countries studied as of July 2020.
Note: LDV = light-duty vehicle
As a result of this weak regulatory environment and high levels of demand for inexpensive vehicles, imported used vehicles in Africa tend to be very old and not compliant with Western standards for roadworthiness. To further understand these trends, the report analyzes the export of used vehicles from the Netherlands to Africa in 2017-2018. According to UNEP, the Netherlands is an important exporter of used vehicles, exporting 35,000 vehicles to Africa over that period. The country’s recent review of its used vehicle exports to Africa provided the UNEP with data for its analysis. Figure 2 shows that, for a selection of countries in West Africa, most used vehicles imported from the Netherlands are 16 to 20 years old. Furthermore, most used vehicles exported to these countries do not have a valid roadworthiness certificate (certificates are either expired or will expire within one month).
Figure 2. Age and status of periodic roadworthiness certificates of imported used vehicles
Note: The x-axis shows distribution of car ages. The color of the bars shows status of periodic roadworthiness certificate.
The report concludes that the gap in policy measures between exporting and importing markets—whereby exporting markets have much higher regulatory standards than importing markets—has led to global trade in used vehicles that are very old, unsafe, and polluting. A large share of traded used vehicles does not adhere to basic environmental requirements, and the report states that these vehicles are a major contributor to air pollution, which can have long-term detrimental health effects for exposed populations, as well as to climate emissions in developing countries and the world more broadly. The report argues that stricter regulations on the import of used vehicles would help lower emissions and air pollution levels and improve road safety.