To decarbonize transport, help developing countries deal with junkers, clunkers and jalopies

This page in:

Street scene in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo: Adwo/Shutterstock
Photo: Adwo/Shutterstock

If you purchase a vehicle in the United States or Europe, you can – on average - reasonably expect to hang on to your car for about a decade. After 10 years or more of regular use, many people living in high-income countries would be ready to bid their aging vehicles adieu and trade up for something newer, more technologically advanced, and most likely, more efficient.

But what happens to these cars when their original drivers wave goodbye? To be sure, some are resold domestically or scrapped for parts and metal. But for many of these cars, their journey is just beginning. Millions of vehicles are exported every year from places like the United States, Japan and Europe to low- and middle-income countries, where the high demand for affordable personal mobility is exploding. From 2015-2020, 23 million used light duty vehicles were exported to low- and middle-income countries. Most used vehicles exported from Europe to Africa are between 13 and 18 years of age. Nigeria is the second largest importer of used vehicles in Africa and fifth-most worldwide. The median age of light duty vehicles imported into the country from Europe is 17 years, and 18 years for heavy duty vehicles. Some 15 million vehicles are more than 20 years old.

What does this mean for the transport sector, where recent consensus has emerged around the urgent need to lower carbon emissions? Many in the industry are justifiably focused on electrifying vehicles. But as the lifespans of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) are extended through international trade, it’s becoming apparent that electrification alone will not be enough to decarbonize the sector. Developed and developing countries alike need a plan for motorization management to help regulate the international trade in aging vehicles, implement stricter emissions and safety standards, improve vehicle maintenance, enhance fuel quality, and manage end-of-life vehicles—and batteries—appropriately.

In the absence of a global approach, it is easy to see how high-income countries will gradually clean up their fleet with electric or highly efficient ICE vehicles, while millions of old, polluting cars will keep moving from the global North to the global South. Under this scenario, the introduction of greener vehicles in high-income countries would not solve the problem of transport-related emission, but simply relocate it.  

The lack of a global motorization management framework also carries large risks. As high-income countries increasingly adopt policies to encourage electric vehicle adoption, a wave of used ICE vehicles may flood the global market. This could potentially further reduce prices of these vehicles, resulting in more people buying private cars in countries whose infrastructure and regulatory environments are ill-prepared for more vehicles and more traffic. Ultimately, this would have many detrimental consequences in several areas:

Climate and development policy: A flood of second-hand ICE vehicles into international trade flows may delay progress on national transport development strategies. Many countries are adopting an Avoid- Shift-Improve (ASI) approach to transport development; but the sudden availability of cheap ICE cars make incentives for alternatives such as walking, cycling, and transit less compelling.

Air quality: The quality of the motor vehicles plying a country’s streets and roadways affects air quality, particularly in cities. Globally, air pollution causes over 6.5 million deaths per year, but these impacts are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.  Most of the ICE vehicles sold to the second-hand car market come from countries with vibrant air quality controls, including requirements for engine and tailpipe emissions control systems and the availability of compatible fuels to enable those systems to work, but the import markets where they are likely to be used generally do not have equivalent controls in place.  As a result, emissions control systems are often purposely or inadvertently disabled when the vehicle is used in the import country.

Road safety: The safety characteristics of vehicles are rarely considered in import requirements in developing countries. If countries have weak institutions for enforcing vehicle maintenance, then an increase in the number of second-hand vehicles on the road resulting from lower prices could contribute to an increase in injuries and deaths due to road crashes and accidents.

As part of the World Bank’s efforts to decarbonize the transport sector in our client countries, it is critical that we work with them to manage motorization.  At the global level, motorization management means having better mechanisms to control and influence the trade in motor vehicles – especially second-hand vehicles – on both the importer and exporter sides. At the level of Bank client countries, it means helping our clients control what vehicles are allowed to come in, what standards they must meet while they are being used in country, and when and how they must be disposed. 

A new World Bank report, Motorization Management for Development provides the framework necessary for addressing these issues. This framework is intended to support client countries in the development of policies and measures aimed at managing vehicle stocks in a proactive, phased, and systematic manner to make them safer, cleaner, and more fuel efficient. The framework reflects a series of policy considerations and programs that can be implemented to improve the quality of fuels and vehicles in a country’s stock. Policy makers in client countries need to determine for themselves how relevant these policy considerations and programs are for their situation, but once they do, the Bank and other development partners need to be ready to help them with implementation.

Decarbonization is rapidly climbing to the top of Bank client countries’ agendas, with many sectors needing to rethink what is meant by business-as-usual in a decarbonizing world.  Road transport is no exception, but it is a sector that is notoriously hard to decarbonize.  Behaviors and technologies that need to be extricated or changed radically in order to accomplish deep decarbonization in the sector seem rather to be ubiquitously hard wired into countries’ economies and people’s lives, which is why we at the World Bank are ready to work with countries on motorization management strategies that work for their unique circumstances.


Roger Gorham

Transport Economist, Transport & ICT Global Practice

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000