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Cars too dangerous and dirty for rich countries are being sold to poor ones

A new report shows that the European Union, Japan, and the United States are selling millions of used cars to developing countries that come nowhere close to meeting minimum safety and environmental standards.

In other words, rich countries are dumping high-polluting cars on poorer ones — which could have disastrous and unjust climate effects.

The report, released by the UN Environment Program this month, found that developing countries received 14 million used cars from the EU, Japan, and the US between 2015 and 2018. 70 percent of this total ended up in developing countries, with more than half sent to African countries.

Many of those nations don’t require strict inspection rules or safety standards, which is how richer countries are still able to export their junk cars. What’s more, those cars rarely adhere to modern-day environmental standards, meaning they pollute more than newer cars.

This is a major problem. The World Health Organization estimates about 90 percent of road accidents occur in low- to middle-income countries, with death rates from such accidents highest in Africa. As lower-quality cars flood into those nations, especially in Africa, the roads are likely to become even more dangerous.

Depressingly, that’s only the short-term concern. The longer-term worry is these dangerous vehicles will imperil us all — by potentially exacerbating the effects of climate change.

How to curb the deadly spread of “dirty cars”

The cars rich countries are sending to poorer ones release more harmful emissions and consume greater amounts of energy than newer models.

That’s especially troubling since two of the exporters, the EU and Japan, have made commitments to become carbon-neutral by 2050. They might reach their goals, but sending problematic vehicles to poorer countries won’t improve dire environmental conditions there. Indeed, less-developed nations already suffer the worst consequences of the climate emergency — like food insecurity — despite contributing the least to global warming.

Sending crappy cars, then, only adds insult to injury.

Secondhand vehicles at a car dealership in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2012.
Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/GettyImages

The UN report’s authors propose a solution to all this. Mainly, they say regulations should be tightened in the next few years, and low- to zero-emission vehicles should be exported by richer countries, not cars adhering to fewer environmental and safety standards.

Exporting and importing counties have a shared responsibility to regulate the quality of used vehicles and mitigate any negative impacts on the environment. Strong implementation and enforcement mechanisms, like new, enforceable global treaties or conventions could add teeth to regulations and compel countries to comply with them.

Such changes require greater international collaboration between the countries that send cars and those that receive them to monitor and regulate the sale of used vehicles and end the practice of “dirty car” exports.

“I think the onus is not only on the exporting country, it’s really a joint responsibility,” Rob de Jong, one of the report’s authors who is Head of Mobility at the UN, told the BBC on October 26.

The goal should be to ensure that all used vehicles sent to poorer nations are secure and clean while remaining affordable. If that goal isn’t met soon, the dual problems of unsafe roads and worsening climate change will continue.

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