On the island nation of Mauritius, in the capital of Port Louis, the air has become tangibly clearer as the number of hybrid and electric vehicles on the road has soared.
In the five years from 2009, the number of hybrid vehicles grew from just 43 to 1,824, and that of electric vehicles from none at all to eight, and the country saw emissions reductions of about 20 per cent in nine years.
It’s a significant jump, even in this country of 519,265 cars, and a testament to the transformative power of smart policymaking: Mauritius combines strict vehicle and fuel standards with waivers or discounts on excise duties to slowly clean up its motor vehicle fleet— and its air quality.
Mauritius’s experience presents an alternative path to the “Africa as dumping ground picture” narrative that has dominated news headlines in recent times, in which used cars that do not meet fuel, vehicle or safety standards in Europe, Japan or the United States are exported to Africa to fuel a multi-billion-dollar used car industry.
African leaders at the March 2018 Africa Clean Mobility Week last week in Nairobi hoped to chart similarly successful outcomes for themselves.
Over 200 participants, including 42 African governments and various private sector participants, attended the week-long event, which included a day discussing and working on the issue of used car imports.
The vast majority of vehicles imported to African countries are used vehicles (as high as 96 per cent of all cars imported into Kenya), some with their catalytic converters missing (taken for the scrap value of their components in their countries or origin), some already many years old before landing at African ports.
“Everything that fails to respond to European norms is sent to Africa,” said the World Health Organisation’s Representative to Benin, Dr Jean Pierre Baptiste.
The transport sector is the highest contributor of urban air pollution in many African cities and of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and in most African countries.
But a total ban on used car vehicles to Africa could be counterproductive to economic development, which benefits from personal mobility— though it is the route that Egypt, South Africa, Sudan, and Morocco have taken.
“What African governments have realised from examples like Mauritius is that with the right policies and fiscal measures and harmonized across sub-regions, used vehicle imports are an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog to much cleaner and more energy efficient vehicle technology and fleets,” said UN Environment’s transport expert Rob De Jong.
Closing the gaps: regional harmonisation is a must
That regional harmonisation is crucial to success on this front; Mauritius has the advantage of being an island, whereas most African countries share porous borders, allowing used car imports of a jumble of different standards to travel across them, some with fake paperwork by the time they are re-exported.
A recent cautionary example is the experience of Benin, whose port of Cotonou is one of the major points of entry for used car imports.
Most of the used cars imported into Cotonou, where import duties are low, are found on the roads of neighbouring Nigeria, Benin’s main client, and of other West African countries.
So when Nigeria was hit with a recession in 2016 and its currency devalued, the demand for used car imports plummeted 70 per cent, hitting Benin badly.
But what put the nail in the coffin was policy uncertainty: Nigeria had announced a ban on both new and used car imports by road to come into force in January 2017, which has been delayed because of pressure from politicians in both countries.
On the other hand, the East African Community is working to align standards: in 2015, Kenya banned any used car imports older than eight years of age, Tanzania charges additional excise duty on used vehicles eight years of age or older (counted from the year of manufacture), and the whole EAC began to apply standardised depreciation rates to these imports.
Uganda, another member of the EAC, began imposing importation standards requiring pre-import testing of cars for roadworthiness in the same year.
“In fact, Uganda is now working on an standard comparable to the rest of the EAC, when the government realized, from the early results of our study, that the average age of diesel vehicles on their roads was 16.5 years old and that of petrol vehicles 15.4 years ols, which meet Euro II standards but are very far off from the current Euro VI standards,” said De Jong.
First detailed report on used car import trade on African continent
The report in question is the first detailed study of the currently-opaque trade in used car imports onto the African continent by De Jong and his team, due to be released by UN Environment later this year.
The report also found that there were policy inconsistencies and ineffective policies in place that did not achieve their goals, something the governments at the Nairobi conference discussed.
De Jong explained that all governments agreed that action, and sub-regional level coordination, were important.
“They realise that the costs of importing and having these highly-polluting cars on the road are actually higher than imposing standards for a cleaner vehicle fleet overall, in terms of upkeep, spare parts needed during the car’s lifetime, not to mention safety and health,” he said.
But, as many policymakers know, when it comes to implementation, the devil is in the detail.
“There are differences in the ways the governments want to tackle the problem,” said De Jong.
Currently, apart from the four African countries that completely ban used car imports, 25 place a maximum age limit on imports, 10 countries ban imports over five years old and six ban imports over 10 years old.
Mauritius, for example, enforces a three-year age limit and a carbon dioxide emissions based fee bate scheme on imports, in place since 2011; a 50 per cent discount on excise duty on hybrid electric vehicles; and a very recent reduction on duties for electric vehicles.
Exporters should take responsibility, too
UN Environment believes that exporting countries should also take responsibility for the vehicles they send to developing countries.
“They have a moral obligation, but there are also legal implications— for example, they should ensure that when cars are being sold online, for example, that buyers get exactly what is actually being advertised,” De Jong said.
“Cars that are heavily polluting have implications for the fulfilment of climate change goals as well as the health impacts of air pollution,” he said.
There are currently no regional or global agreements that rationalize and govern the flow of used vehicles.
Read more about the Africa Clean Mobility Week conference and access all documents and presentations here. Recommendations from the conference are accessible here. Highlights of the UN Environment study on used car imports in Africa are here. Rob De Jong’s presentation slides on promoting cleaner used vehicles in Africa are here.