African countries are curbing imports of used cars from Japan to cut emissions

Getting bangers off the road in Harare
Getting bangers off the road in Harare
Image: REUTERS/Howard Burditt
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Zimbabwe has become the latest African country to make a move to curb hazardous emissions from old vehicles imported from Japan and to make it mandatory for all imported vehicles to be screened for radiation contamination as more African countries seek to reduce environmental contamination from imported pre-owned cars.

Importation of cheap secondhand vehicles from Japan is big business across many African countries whose citizens cannot afford new ones.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said in an October report that Africa accounts for about 40% of all vehicles exported from major automobile manufacturing hubs such as Japan, Europe and the US.

Zimbabwe’s authorities are now screening imported pre-owned vehicles for radiation at a cost of $10 and a further $50 for “de-contamination”. This follows a Dec. 8 directive from the Radiation Protection Authority of Zimbabwe that said “all vehicles imported into Zimbabwe from countries that experienced nuclear incidents (Japan)” have to be inspected for radiation contamination.

Neighboring Zambia has already made a move on this, with its Radiation Protection Authority screening about 46,185 imported vehicles, mostly from Japan, in 2019. Kenya has also introduced curbs on radiation contamination and emissions from older vehicles after directing that all vehicles aged five years or older be tested for radiation. The East African country additionally restricts imports of used vehicles that are over eight years old.

Botswana, which has no age restriction on imported vehicles, is still prioritizing revenue collection from pre-owned vehicle dealerships, with the revenue authority moving to act against syndicates “using Botswana to buy and register the cars then take them to Mozambique and South Africa”. South Africa, which has stricter emissions control policies, does not allow older vehicles imported from Japan to be driven on its roads, even when transiting to regional destinations like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

With southern and eastern Africa using mostly right-hand steering wheel cars, importers of used cars tend to favor Japan, which uses right-hand steering and is home to some of the most popular car models driven on the continent.

As Africa accounts for the highest number of annual global imports of used cars, the continent is particularly vulnerable to a worsening air pollution problem. Recent research estimates fossil fuel emissions from power plants and vehicles alone will result in nearly 50,000 deaths per year by 2030 with annual emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides projected to double by 2030, compared to 2012 levels. Vehicle emissions are a key source of particulate matter in several of Africa’s largest cities.

The UNEP report meanwhile notes “pollutant and climate emissions” and high “energy consumption” as “key concerns” arising out of the growing importation of old vehicles into Africa, mostly from Japan. This has ignited worries by environmentalists that exporters of high carbon emitting used cars vehicles are dumping the automobiles, condemned in their home countries, in Africa.

As such, governments in Africa are now seeking to control this by curbing the age of vehicles that can be imported and also screening them for radiation contamination in light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

Although there are more African countries that are trying to limit emissions from old imported pre-owned vehicles, the UNEP report discloses that other African countries are still lagging or have curbs that have higher age limits such as Uganda which in 2019 imposed limits on importation of vehicles that are as old as 15 years. Rwanda, on the other hand, “has no age limit for used vehicle imports”. The UNEP report says “average fuel consumption and CO2 emissions” are higher in such African countries.

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