The typical car will go for its last drive sometime between its 10th and 15th year on Earth. At this point, the vast majority are sent to be recycled or sold for parts. But for a few autos, a second lease on life awaits, as a significant percentage are exported from richer nations to developing nations for a few more years on the road.
In countries across Africa and Latin America, old used cars from places like the U.S. and Europe provide vital access to transportation to people who would otherwise be unable to afford their own vehicles. While this process extends the lives of these cars, the practice is not without problems, in particular with regards to pollution and passenger safety.
In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we speak with two researchers about why richer countries export used cars, what impacts they have in developing nations and whether import restrictions are effectively stemming the rise in pollution and accidents caused by this practice.
Paul Bledsoe is adjunct professorial lecturer at the Center for Environmental Policy at the American University in the U.S., where he specializes in energy, natural resources and climate change.
He says that “the process of retiring still-functioning cars off the road is going to speed up as electric vehicles become cheaper to buy and operate. And so when that happens, you may see a huge influx of used combustion-engine vehicles hitting the secondary market.” Bledsoe is concerned that, without the adequate policies in place, developing nations could see pollution skyrocket over the next decade as a result.
Festival Godwin Boateng is a research fellow at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, at Columbia University in the U.S. He studies sustainable development in Africa through a postcolonial lens and has looked into the issue of old cars.
“Between 2015 and 2018 some 14 million used vehicles were exported from the European Union, Japan, and the U.S., with 40% of them ending up in African countries,” explains Boateng. “Just in Ghana, for every hundred vehicles on the road, 80 to 90 are used vehicles.”
While Festival recognized that used cars fill an important gap in providing transportation opportunities in Ghana, he says over 50% of used cars are over 15 years old. “So they tend to be really old and highly polluting. And to make matters waste, they tend to do modifications to these vehicles, which make them even more polluting.”
In an effort to combat the harms of old cars, in 2020, Ghana passed a new law aiming to restrict the import of cars that are more than 10 years old. With exports of old cars expected to increase as electric vehicles take over Western markets, policies like the law Ghana passed in 2020 may become more relevant.
Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to learn more about how old cars get to places like Ghana, the mixed bag of benefits and harms they have once they arrive and the ways to improve this situation.
This episode was written and produced by Mend Mariwany, who is also the executive producer of The Conversation Weekly. Eloise Stevens does our sound design, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.
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