When world leaders attend the make-or-break United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland in a few weeks, they will be ferried around in electric vehicles – a reminder that the transport sector has a critical role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While many developed nations have pledged to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in the next two decades, the transition will be more complicated in developing countries, where old cars imported from Europe, Japan and the United States are often the only affordable option.
Many of these used cars emit dangerous fumes, exposing people to high levels of air pollution, and they are often not roadworthy, resulting in more accidents and fatalities.
Rob de Jong, head of the Sustainable Mobility Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), says there is no way the world can meet its zero-emission targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change unless efforts are made to regulate the used car trade. It’s a point he plans to make at the upcoming climate summit, known as COP26.
“Over the years, as demand for affordable, second-hand cars has grown in developing countries, we have seen an increase in the export of polluting, outdated vehicles from developed countries. These issues are all interconnected. If we want the global fleet to go electric, this problem needs to be tackled as part of that,” he says.
Globally, the transport sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Vehicle emissions are also a significant source of fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that are major causes of urban air pollution.
Many exported used cars would not meet safety or emission standards in their countries of origin, with some even stripped of key parts or safety features, such as air filters. Ideally, these vehicles will be rapidly phased out as part of the global transition to electric mobility but, in the meantime, experts say the trade needs to be regulated, not least because the global fleet will double by 2050, with some 90 per cent of this growth taking place in low- and middle-income countries.
UNEP has long been working with partners to tighten regulations in importing countries while urging developed countries to stop exporting vehicles that fail environment and safety inspections.
In a landmark report last October, UNEP found that the three largest exporters of used vehicles – the European Union, Japan, and the United States – exported 14 million used light duty vehicles worldwide between 2015 and 2018.
Of the 146 countries studied in the report, about two-thirds have “weak” or “very weak” policies regulating the import of used vehicles. The report called for harmonized regulations at a global and regional level to “ensure used vehicles make meaningful contributions to shifting to cleaner, safer, and affordable mobility.” This could notably happen if used low- and no-emissions vehicles are promoted as an affordable way for developing countries to access advanced technologies.
Setting new standards
UNEP and its partners have worked with African countries to draw up new standards, helped by the UN Road Safety Fund, which is chaired by the UN Special Envoy for Road Safety Jean Todt, who is also president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.
This work has already paid off in West Africa, where the Economic Community of West African States last year adopted a comprehensive set of regulations for introducing cleaner fuels and vehicles. Those standards came into effect in January this year.
Now, efforts are underway to introduce similar rules in East Africa, de Jong said, and South Africa has started a consultation process on harmonised standards.
“I’m very optimistic that in less than five years we can have harmonised standards in all of Africa, and in less than eight years, we can have the whole world introduce those minimum standards, give or take a few countries,” de Jong says, noting that action must also be taken at the other end of the supply chain.
“Exporters also need to take responsibility. If a vehicle is no longer roadworthy in a European country, you should not export it, regardless of whether there is a regulation in the importing country.,” he says.
The upside of going green
There are benefits too for developed countries. Instead of exporting old, polluting vehicles, states could send them to recycling centres, creating jobs and building a circular system that provides recycled raw materials for car manufacturers. And, as supply to developing nations shrinks, prices will rise, offering a financial incentive to developing countries to increase their own production capacity and laying the groundwork for an eventual transition to cleaner transport systems.
Clear policies are also driving private innovation and progress.
Mark Carney, the UN Special Envoy on Climate and Finance, has noted that the moratoria on internal combustion engines in the European Union and the United Kingdom after 2030 means that industry can step forward now and make the necessary changes.
“This is exactly where the financial sector is most powerful. Because what the financial sector will not do is wait until 2030 to adjust. It will start to adjust now. It will give money, investments and loans to businesses with plans to prosper in those environments,” he has said.
As with all environmental challenges, success will only be achieved through global cooperation.
“It doesn’t matter if climate emissions are emitted in the Netherlands or Kenya. They count towards global emissions and these need to get to zero for the global vehicle fleet by 2050,” said de Jong. “With climate change, you cannot ship away a problem. It is still a problem.”