Written by Antoaneta Roussi
Hurtling between two large bus taxis in Gambia’s capital Banjul, is a 1980s Mercedes-Benz 190D: bumper upended, headlights out, wing mirrors hanging by a thread. The car is one of West Africa’s infamous “zombie fleet” of used European cars, sold in the region for cheap and used until their very last breath.
Africa is one of the largest markets for used vehicles in the world due in part to the lack of public transport systems. In large cities, public taxis, otherwise known as matatus, dala dalas, kia kias, or motorcycle taxis known as okadas and boda bodas, serve as the only form of transport apart from private cars. With the UN projecting the continent’s population to reach 2 billion by 2050, and rapid urbanization happening throughout, the number of used vehicles in African cities is expected to double, and with them, carbon emissions.
“Cleaning up the global vehicle fleet is a priority to meet global and local air quality and climate targets,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, which published in October a Global Overview of Used Light Vehicles. “Over the years, developed countries have increasingly exported their used vehicles to developing countries; because this largely happens unregulated, this has become the export of polluting vehicles.”
Between 2015 and 2018, 14 million used vehicles made their way around the globe. Some 80 per cent of them went to developing countries, with more than half ending up in Africa. The EU was responsible for the lion’s share of the trade, with 54 per cent, followed by Japan at 27 per cent and the USA with 18 per cent.
The Netherlands, one of the main exporters in Europe, shipped 35,000 vehicles to West Africa in 2017-2018 alone, most of which did not have a valid roadworthiness certificate and were close to 20 years old. Their transfer to Africa is not only dangerous in terms of road traffic accidents, but also to blame for the worsening air pollution, which hampers government efforts to mitigate climate change and improve public health.
With the publication of the findings, 15 West African countries announced that they would introduce minimum requirements for used vehicles in January 2021, meaning more than 80 per cent of vehicles coming from the Netherlands will no longer be accepted.
Thiago Herick de Sa, a Technical Officer in Urban Health and Transport for the World Health Organization, said the development was a positive step but that a broader discussion was needed on how we see future mobility given that the poorest communities were often concentrated in areas furthest away from city services.
“Unless we tackle spatial segregation and lack of access to public transport in cities there will continue to be demand from cheap and bad cars and motorcycles,” he said. “Similarly, the conversation on used vehicles shouldn’t only focus on regulations but looking at the type of city we want to have and the role that private vehicles will have in that city’s mobility. Healthy sustainable mobility systems are the ones that prioritize walking, cycling and public transport.”
Today, the global transport sector accounts for nearly a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, with vehicles a major source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) — very serious pollutants for human health. In this context, the UNEP report calls for collective policies and harmonized minimum quality standards that will ensure used vehicles contribute to cleaner, safer fleets in developing countries.
“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 Andersen.
The Dutch government published its own report into Used Vehicles Exported to Africa. It found that besides the issues of keeping old cars running, there were not enough facilities in Africa to dismantle them in a safe way. By harmonising regulations between exporting and importing countries, vehicles would more efficiently be classified as waste, leaving them for recycling in Europe, which would contribute to a circular economy by preserving valuable raw materials.
“The Netherlands cannot address this issue alone,” said Stientje Van Veldhoven, the Netherlands Minister for the Environment. “I will call for a coordinated European approach and a close cooperation between European and African governments, to ensure that the EU only exports vehicles that are fit for purpose, and compliant with standards set by importing countries.”
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition will commission a similar study in 2021 with focus on heavy-duty vehicles and engines, and regulatory frameworks in both exporting and importing countries to be implemented by UNEP.
Diesel trucks and buses contribute heavily to air pollution and are used for an even longer time in developing countries. There is global momentum to shift to soot-free vehicles in many developed countries so there is a risk that the older trucks and buses will end up polluting developing countries.