Replacing gasoline cars with electric vehicles is a pillar of President Biden’s strategy to combat climate change. But even if the government sets a deadline for gas-powered passenger cars to be sold at sunset, exporting used cars overseas could stall the global reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
Every year the United States ships hundreds of thousands of its oldest and dirtiest cars overseas to mostly poor countries in a largely unregulated trade. In other words, cars that would not meet safety, fuel economy and emissions standards in the US or Europe dominate the roads in countries that rely on imported vehicles.
In Kenya and Nigeria, for example, more than 90% of vehicles are foreign imports.
“The pollution and gas hogging continues even after the vehicle is removed from the streets of America,” said Dan Becker, leader of the Campaign for Safe Climate Transportation at the Center for Biodiversity. “It’s essentially a problem with Cheshire cats.”
There are around 1.4 billion cars on the road worldwide. That number is projected to more than double by 2050, with 90% of the growth coming from sales of used vehicles in lower-income countries. This means that emissions from the global transport fleet, which currently account for a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, could also double.
If left unchecked, the global used vehicle trade could have dire consequences for climate change, air quality and, by extension, public health, according to a groundbreaking UN report released last year.
The study found that the United States, Japan, and the European Union exported 14 million used passenger cars between 2015 and 2018, with 70% shipped to developing countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Two thirds of the countries surveyed in the study did not have adequate guidelines regulating the quality of imported cars. As a result, the majority of imported used vehicles were inefficient, unsafe and old.
In Uganda, for example, the average age of used diesel imports in 2017 was more than 20 years.
“The majority of vehicles exported do not have a valid roadworthiness certificate,” said Rob de Jong, director of sustainable mobility for the United Nations Environment Program and author of the report. “The used vehicle trade is not a bad thing in itself, but in the absence of standards it is an all-rounder.”
Some countries have started cracking down on dirty, unsafe imports. Some countries like Egypt, India and Brazil have completely banned the import of used vehicles. Others, like Iran and Iraq, have introduced age limits, while others, like Singapore and Morocco, have introduced emission standards for vehicles.
Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, banned used vehicles for more than 3 years and issued a vehicle carbon tax. As a result, the import of used electric and hybrid cars in the country has increased significantly.
However, there is no regional or global standard for regulating the flow of used vehicles as a climate protection or air pollution control mechanism. UN’s De Jong said there needs to be a streamlined approach to curb sales of unsafe and inefficient vehicles.
“The risk of not doing this,” he said, “is not in line with the Paris Climate Agreement,” which aims to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
Roger Gorham, transport economist and urban development specialist at the World Bank, said there was a consensus that regulating the used car trade should be a shared responsibility between exporting and importing countries.
“Exporters need to be able to distinguish between legitimate exports of vehicles that can actually be used safely, reliably, and in line with environmental and climate goals in their destination countries, as opposed to cars and trucks, which are not even the most basic Safety and security requirements meet environmental standards, ”he said in an email. “However, importing countries are also obliged to be aware of the acceptable performance thresholds of cars (and fuels) that they are importing into their country.”
In the United States, used car and truck exports make up a small portion of the domestic used car market. In 2019, more than 40 million used vehicles – and 17 million new – were sold, according to Edmunds. Of those 40 million, less than 1 million were exported overseas, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
Still, the United States is the third largest exporter of used vehicles after the European Union and Japan. In addition, dramatic measures are needed over the next decade to prevent catastrophic warming of humanity. This comes from a report by the International Energy Agency released this week (Climate wireMay 18).
Electric vehicles currently account for 5% of global automobile sales. That number must rise to 60% by 2030, the IEA said, and sales of traditional gasoline and diesel-powered cars must cease by 2035.
Cash for clunkers
Ray LaHood, who served as transportation secretary under former President Obama, said the Biden administration should seek to regulate dirty vehicle exports.
“Part of our responsibility is to clean the environment in every possible way, not only for our own country but also for the world,” he said in an interview. “That has to be a priority.”
Biden administration officials “need to think about taking these cars as trade-ins,” added LaHood, who now co-chairs Building America’s Future Education Fund, a non-partisan infrastructure coalition.
Under the Obama administration, LaHood oversaw a federal program called CARS (Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save) – also known as Cash for Clunkers – that gave car owners financial incentives to trade in their vehicles for new, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. The program, which was designed to stimulate the post-recession economy and promote cleaner car sales, was hugely popular.
Consumers who traded their older cars and bought new ones received cash discounts on site. Within six weeks of approving a $ 1 billion payout, Congress approved an additional $ 2 billion for discounts.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, more than 677,000 discounts were processed, increasing U.S. gross domestic product by billions of dollars, creating or saving thousands of jobs, cutting fuel consumption by millions of gallons, and significantly reducing carbon emissions.
Trade-in vehicles were supposed to be smashed or otherwise destroyed, but a 2010 report by the Inspector General of the Transportation Department found the disposal difficult to verify. The report found that 32% of the waste disposal facilities examined did not meet DOT standards. Therefore, the facilities had to report the disposal to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).
However, at the time the OIG report was published in 2010, only 15 states were fully involved in the NMVTIS database, which was created to prevent vehicle theft and fraud. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, cars whose total losses had been declared scrapped were resold in other states with fake titles, known as title laundering. Today, 48 states are participating in the program, according to their website. Hawaii, Kansas, and the District of Columbia are listed as “Under Development”.
“[O]A facility that had received 357 CARS vehicles at the time of our inspection was not aware of NMVTIS and therefore had not reported any information about the status of these vehicles, ”the investigation revealed. “In addition, one facility we visited did not sign or date the disposal certificate forms for the 27 trade-in vehicles it handled.”
Paul Bledsoe, who served as an advisor to the Department of Energy under Obama and worked in the Clinton administration on climate change, fears that many Cash for Clunkers vehicles may have been exported.
“They were shipped to Africa or South America,” said Bledsoe, now a strategic advisor to the Progressive Policy Institute, in an interview last month. “So the Biden team has to take care of it [retired vehicles] are permanently retired. “
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.