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Are Secondhand Cars Treasure or Trash? Takeaways From the Second INECE Compliance Conversation

Monday, July 8, 2019

Shehla Chowdhury

Research & Publications Intern

Over the last several decades, many countries have sought to decrease their carbon footprint by creating stricter emissions standards for motor vehicles. However, once these standards are in place, a serious question arises: what should be done with older, “dirtier” vehicles? Often, the answer has been to export them to regions with less strict vehicle standards.

Every year, millions of secondhand vehicles are transported from high-income economies like the United States, the European Union, and Japan to low-income nations across Africa and Asia. While these secondhand cars have provided affordable transportation to many in these countries, they have also brought with them a plethora of concerns. In addition to carbon dioxide, older vehicles often emit nitrogen oxides and particulate matter at a much higher rate than modern models. These harmful pollutants drive ambient air quality down and can be very hazardous to human health. Already, approximately 780,000 Africans are killed by air pollution annually, and the problem only threatens to grow worse as more drivers hit the road. 

Earlier this month, the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) organized its second Compliance Conversation to drive discussion on this very issue. Proposed by Gerphas Opondo, Executive Director of the Environmental Compliance Institute (ECI-Africa) and the East African Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (EANECE), this conversation brought together leading experts from UN Environment, the International Council on Clean Transportation, and the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law with stakeholders from around the globe to explore potential solutions over the course of two sessions. Panelists for these sessions included Ariadne Baskin, Katherine Blumberg, Seema Kakade, and Robert Percival.

In the first session, panelists shared their backgrounds and experience navigating the emerging field of sustainable mobility before answering a wide range of questions from the audience. These discussions guided the second session, during which panelists probed potential national and international regulatory frameworks and mechanisms to decrease the number of secondhand vehicles on the roads of Africa and Asia.

An overarching obstacle in addressing this issue, as our panelists observed, lies in balancing the undeniable autonomy that vehicles provide with environmental protection and public health. Individuals in the nations receiving these secondhand cars need accessible forms of mobility. The secondhand cars arriving in their localities are affordable and get the job done, moving people, food, and other products where they need to go. Additionally, as residents begin to accumulate more expendable income, car ownership presents a tantalizing step up in social status. Thus, any legislation that is introduced to decrease access to these vehicles will likely be met with serious political backlash. The secondhand car business is already something of a “grey market,” noted one of our panelists, and attempting to ban the sale of these vehicles may just result in more illegal activity.

With these challenges in mind, the panelists brainstormed a variety of potential approaches to addressing the issue, each with its own set of benefits and disadvantages. Most countries that have attempted to handle this influx of polluting vehicles have chosen to do so either by banning them outright or by developing complex importation requirements. These importation requirements are often coupled with taxation schemes that utilize the age of the car or its emission capability as a basis for determining the rate.

Most regulators focus on the age of the car as an indicator of environmental performance. Older cars generally use older, dirtier technologies; however, some exceptions, such as used electric vehicles or “new” cars fashioned out of used parts from different vehicles, can make this method a bit trickier. The panelists noted that regulations could alternatively be based on emissions standards or even car certification standards, but both of these would be more laborious tasks, requiring more thorough inspections of each individual car as well as an increased investment in the overall process.

The low-income countries facing these issues, unfortunately, often lack the funds to implement labor-intensive comprehensive compliance assurance mechanisms. As such, the panelists suggested self-sustaining policy tools that are capable of generating funding for incentives as the most holistic and effective approach. For example, countries could introduce a “feebate” scheme, creating revenue by imposing taxes on dirtier vehicles and using that revenue to help subsidize more environmentally friendly technologies like electric cars or two-wheelers.

Across both sessions, the experts and audiences agreed that the problem is multifaceted and will be best addressed by a packet of solutions and not a single “silver bullet.” Solutions will likely have to involve mixed-use planning to improve other sources of mobility, international support to address transboundary issues, and paradigm shifts around the very definition of “waste.” Creating a roadmap that delineates long-term, concrete objectives and milestones to achieve these goals would be quite useful in this regard. Moving forward, countries will need to continue making incremental improvements while forging ahead with ambitious goals for the future.