European Union, Japan and South Korea Export ‘Heavy Duty’ Vehicle Pollution to Low-Income Countries
Heavy-duty trucks and buses spew out soot, including climate-changing black carbon and health harmful PM2.5 on a highway.

A new report finds that the European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea have been “dumping” used, and highly polluting trucks and buses on low- and middle-income countries. Heavy duty trucks and buses account for as much as 63% of PM2.5 pollution emissions from road vehicles globally.  

A new UN report has exposed a lucrative but highly controversial trade in used heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) from rich countries to poorer ones that is vastly exacerbating the load of toxic pollutants in developing cities and interurban roads. Such vehicles are a “major” contributor to air pollution and climate emissions including CO2 and black carbon as well as other diesel and soot particles deeply harmful to health as well as contributing to global warming, according to the report. 

The report, Used Heavy- Duty Vehicles and the Environment: A Global Overview of Used Heavy-Duty Vehicles: Flow, Scale and Regulation, was released Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) at the sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly, in Nairobi. 

The bulk (60%) of the vehicle exports come from just three countries and regions – Japan, the European Union and the Republic of Korea. 

Between 2015-20, the period of study, Japan exported about 1.3 million such vehicles, the most vehicles in terms of volume and value – although Japan didn’t release the value. The EU exported 1 million and sold another million within the EU for a total of $21 billion, and South Korea exported about 134,000 units worth $850 million. The US is also a major exporter but its data on new and used vehicles is combined and will be disaggregated and analysed for a report next year. 

High income countries’ vehicle markets are saturated – so older vehicles are offloaded abroad

The three major exporters are all high-income economies with ownership levels of such vehicles saturated, so the sales of new trucks or buses are mainly to replace old ones which are then exported. 

The report tracks export patterns of used trucks and buses to some 146 countries, 122 of which are low and middle-income countries in Asia and Latin America, as well as Africa. 

From the EU, 20% of used heavy duty vehicles are sent to Africa, with Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe on the top of the list, while in terms of the Middle East and Asia, big importers include Jordan and Afghanistan. Other countries, such as Myanmar, get a significant portion of their used vehicles from Japan.

Only about one-third of the 146 importing countries have adopted Euro 4 or better standards for cleaner emissions and vehicles, something that would end the import of the oldest and most polluting vehicles.  

Adopting the highest vehicle emissions standard, Euro 6 or equivalent, across all 146 countries, coupled with the introduction of cleaner, low-sulphur diesel fuels, would result in 300,000-700,000 avoided premature deaths by 2030, the report also estimates. 

Three out of every five used HDVs are still exported to wealthier countries such as Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There is also a heavy trade in used vehicles moving from western to Eastern European Countries and Russia, the report notes. 

But these countries tend to have tighter emission norms so they don’t get the most polluting vehicles; some countries like the UAE also re-export these vehicles to Africa, as well as high-income Chile re-exporting to Paraguay. 

Countries in black are the biggest importers of used heavy-duty vehicles. The arrows show the patterns of used HDV exports from Japan, the European Union and South Korea primarily to Russia, eastern Europe, and the Global South.

Dumping trucks and buses: Small in number, high in pollution

The trade imposes higher human health, as well as economic and climate costs on the most vulnerable nations, UNEP officials said. 

“You have air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, more energy use (higher fuel consumption), more cost to the individual,” Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of Industry and Economy Division, UN Environment Programme, adding that incentives for both exporters and importers to shift to cleaner vehicles are insufficient. “You really need to be looking at heavy-duty used vehicles during the transition to e-mobility.” 

While heavy-duty vehicles comprise only about 3.6% of the $1.2 trillion global automobile trade, they represent the lion’s share of vehicle exhaust emissions dangerous to human health. 

They account for 44% of the emissions of on-road nitrogen oxides, which contribute to childhood asthma and chronic lung disease, as well as impeding lung development. Heavy duty vehicles also account for 63% of vehicle emissions of fine particulates (PM 2.5), which are responsible for a significant proportion of deaths from cardiovascular disease as well as lung disease and cancer. PM 2.5 emissions also are increasingly linked to a range of other disease conditions from low neonatal birth weight to dementia. 

All in all, road traffic is a major contributor of air pollution globally, which causes about 8.3 million deaths annually.   

Illegal shipment of end-of-life vehicles

The report also refers to studies that show “illegal” shipment and “dumping” of end-of-life vehicles which are sent to Africa, Asia,Latin America, and Eastern Europe instead of being scrapped. 

“It can’t be that countries become the dumping grounds of obsolete materials of other places,” says Martina Otto, Head of Secretariat, Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). 

There is growing awareness that such exports of very poor quality vehicles to the global south are “unacceptable” said Rob de Jong, Head of Sustainable Mobility Unit, UN Environment Programme, and some “movement” among policymakers. But clear policies and guidance are yet to be developed.  

The report is thus part of an effort to put the issue higher on the policy agenda. 

Heavy duty vehicle emissions standards throughout the world. Blue shading shows countries with vehicle standards of Euro 4 and above. Euro 6 is the cleanest standard, primarily used in high income Europe, North America and Asia.

We’re going to help these countries make sure those old vehicles are not exported from Europe,” de Jong said, adding that clear metrics need to be set, against which UNEP can further monitor exports and imports. “So … this shared responsibility is important. But the first exporters have now started to move. 

As of now “none of the exporting countries are making sure that these vehicles are road-worthy, have emission filters working, or are anything that can be exported,” de Jong said. “The countries with very poor regulation are attracting the worst quality of used trucks and buses, vehicles that may be 20 years old, that may have 500,000 or a million kilometres on their odometer.”

Under de Jong’s leadership, UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) have forged a series of global initiative promoting the uptake of low sulphur fuels and cleaner HDV technologies in developing and transitional countries.

‘Shared responsibility’ by exporters and importers 

UNEP and CCAC have thus called for ‘shared responsibility’ between exporters and importers of used vehicles. This means vehicles must be checked by high income countries prior to export to ensure they meet certain emissions standards. At the same time, in lower-income countries, emissions standards need to be raised. Regional harmonisation of standards is also important; heavy duty vehicles are commonly used for cross-border transport. 

The report comes at a time when several nations in the Global South have protosted the EU for imposing a carbon tax on imports to European bloc. 

Last year, the EU launched the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. Those who stand to lose the most are likely to be developing countries that may find  technologies to cut CO2 emissions unaffordable right now. 

Demand for used trucks in low and middle-income countries is rising at about 10% a year in the absence of domestic manufacturing capacity – which is either low or non-existent, and heavy duty vehicles continue to be essential to countries’ economic development, the report’s authors say. 

The report also considered heavy duty vehicle exports from three other major economic blocs, the US, China and India. The US data for export of new and used heavy-duty vehicles wasn’t segregated so that analysis will have to be done separately next year, report authors say. China’s share in the global production of these vehicles is HDV 67% but its share in the export of used trucks and buses is low. India, although one of the world’s top five producers of new HDVs, has a global share in the marketplace of only 3%, following on after China (67%), Japan (9%), the USA (5%) and Mexico (3%).

Image Credits: UNEP, UNEP.

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