Oct 27, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The climate peril of used cars

Reproduced from UN Environment Programme; Map: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from UN Environment Programme; Map: Axios Visuals

A big new UN report delves deeply into an under-the-radar problem: the long-lasting carbon emissions and pollution from used cars shipped from wealthy nations to poorer ones.

The big picture: The UN Environment Programme report finds that between 2015 and 2018, the U.S., EU and Japan together exported 14 million used light-duty vehicles, with 70% going to developing nations. Africa is the largest export destination.

Threat level: The analysis finds that most importing countries have limited or absent environment and safety regulations governing used vehicle imports, while few developed nations have export restrictions.

  • The report analyzed nations' import policies and created a ranking system based on factors like emissions standards and vehicle age limits.
  • "Out of the 146 countries surveyed, 81 countries, over half, have ‘weak’ or ‘very weak’ policies to regulate the import of used vehicles," it finds.

Why it matters: Transportation overall (not just cars but also heavy trucks, planes and so forth) is a major emissions source, creating almost a fourth of energy-related CO2 output and roughly 15% of all global greenhouse gases.

And the report notes that the global fleet of light-duty vehicles is projected to at least double by 2050, with almost all the growth coming from non-OECD countries that import lots of used cars, vans, minibuses and so forth.

What they're saying: “Developed countries must stop exporting vehicles that fail environment and safety inspections and are no longer considered roadworthy in their own countries, while importing countries should introduce stronger quality standards," said UNEP head Inger Andersen.

What's next: The report recommends steps including harmonized global and regional regulations and standards, as well as more research.

It also says steps like age limits and fiscal policies like age- or CO2-based taxation can be effective.

Go deeper: Exports of Used Cars Are a Pollution Problem, U.N. Warns (New York Times)

Go deeper