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Rich Countries Are Sending Millions of Dirty Old Cars to Poorer Nations

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In Kenya, more than 95% of cars currently being added to Kenya’s fleet are imported and secondhand.
In Kenya, more than 95% of cars currently being added to Kenya’s fleet are imported and secondhand.
Photo: Tony Karumba (Getty Images)

Transitioning to cleaner cars—including policies to ramp up electrification—will be key to addressing climate change. But a new United Nations report sheds light on the need for more regulation on the cars we send overseas, too.

Every year, wealthy countries export millions of cars to poorer nations. The new report, released by the United Nations Environment Program on Monday, found that between 2015 and 2018, the U.S., the European Union, and Japan exported a combined 14 million used cars. Eighty percent of those vehicles were sent to low- and middle-income countries, with 40% ending up in Africa. In contrast, most new cars are shipped to wealthier countries.


As the owner of a used car myself (don’t @ me, public transportation in my city sucks!), I see how this could be useful for lower-income people looking for an affordable way to get around. But all these secondhand cars are actually a huge cause for concern. The authors analyzed 146 countries that import cars from rich nations and found that two-thirds of them had “weak” or “very weak” policies to regulate the performance and age of vehicles brought over from abroad. In fact, the authors found that 100 countries had zero vehicles emissions standards at all, and 61 countries had no age limits on imported cars.

These loose regulations mean that many people in poorer countries are driving cars that are dangerous from both a safety perspective and a longer term climate one. The average age of used vehicles exported to the Republic of Gambia in West Africa, for instance, was 18.8 years old, and a quarter of vehicles sent to Nigeria were 19.6 years and older.


Older vehicles include fewer safety features and are generally more likely to cause problems. Globally, car crashes kill an estimated 1.25 million people each year, and 90% of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though those countries are home to just 54% of all vehicles globally. According to the World Health Organization, Africa has the highest road traffic fatality rates, seeing some 246,000 deaths each year.

These old cars also emit more greenhouse gas pollution, which is a problem for air quality and for the climate. Globally, transportation is responsible for a quarter of all carbon pollution, and cars also emit nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which can both cause respiratory issues. The authors’ findings suggest that poor countries’ lack of car regulations is one reason that they see the worst impacts of air pollution.

To combat these issues, the authors suggest that the leaders of countries that import secondhand vehicles commit to regulating these used car markets. Some are already taking on this challenge. In April, for instance, 15 West African nations pledged to adopt new policies to match the ones that the European Union adopted for domestically used cars in 2005. Morocco has already adopted such standards and as a result, imports relatively clean and safe cars on the whole.

Countries exporting used cars should also bear responsibility to make the necessary changes rather than treating developing countries like scrapyards. So far, the sole major used car exporter to take on an analysis of these markets is the Netherlands. This week, the country made the results of that investigation public. They show that that most of its secondhand vehicle exports to Africa in 2018 lacked valid certificates of roadworthiness and failed to meet the nation’s domestic automobile regulations. Many of the cars were also stripped of their valuable parts, like platinum, sensors, and particulate filters, rendering them even less safe for people and the planet. Based on these findings, the Dutch government has pledged to update its regulations on used cars by next year, though it has not yet made specific promises.


Though the report doesn’t mention it, these important efforts should also be paired with global policies to stop using so many cars. The report’s authors expect that the global fleet of passenger vehicles will double by 2050, and that 90% of that growth will take place in low- and middle-income countries. But if all countries made efforts to move toward low-carbon public transit, we could begin to cut that fleet down and ultimately phase out using cars altogether. Richer countries like the U.S. which have historically emitted more carbon per capita, should lead the way and help fund this transition in countries with fewer resources. These policies would benefit all of us, because carbon emissions, like used cars, don’t stay within national borders.