President Joe Biden walked up to a podium inside the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, last year and declared, “My name is Joe Biden, and I’m a car guy.”
His infrastructure agenda has backed that up: The administration has approved $7.5 billion in funding for EV charging stations nationwide as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law, set a goal for EVs to make up 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030 and is still pressing Congress to pass tax credits for EVs and batteries.
But what’s missing from that agenda is any plan for how to deal with the diesel and gas-guzzling vehicles being exported in increasingly large numbers to low-income countries around the world. That essentially offshores carbon and air pollution, but in the case of the climate and public health, out of sight isn’t out of mind. That missing piece could wind up derailing the very purpose of Biden’s clean transportation plan and global climate goals.
“We will have a self-defeating set of climate policies,” warned Paul Bledsoe, professor of environmental and climate studies at American University and a former Clinton administration climate adviser. “We're simply exporting emissions that would otherwise have occurred here. The global commons and the global climate isn't helped at all.”
The White House did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment.
According to the Department of Commerce, the U.S. exported $8 billion worth of used passenger vehicles in 2021, up from about $6 billion in 2017 when the U.S. was still rebounding from a lull in exports, as countries including Mexico introduced import restrictions.
A 2020 United Nations report attributed some of the export problem to a “very weak” regulatory environment for used vehicles in Nigeria and 65 other countries, more than half of which are in Africa. The issue mirrors the U.S.’s widespread export of plastic waste to other poorer nations.
A rising middle class in the developing world coupled with rapid urbanization and the inadequacy of public transportation means that there is a strong demand for secondhand cars in these countries, just as there is a supply of it from countries like the U.S.
“While they support mobility, used vehicles have serious environmental and public health challenges,” said Festival Godwin Boateng, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “They are often over-aged, highly polluting and prone to malfunctioning and crashes.”
Often the cars that are exported abroad are older, emit more carbon and harmful pollutants and would not be allowed on local roads. “Vehicles that fail emissions testing in California are much more likely to be exported,” said Lucas Davis, professor at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, who has studied used car exports to Mexico.
None of this is to say that the shift to clean transportation in the U.S. won’t have positive climate effects. Transportation is responsible for 27% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the largest of any sector.
If the Biden administration’s push for EVs is successful, 60% to 70% of all cars on the roads would be electric by 2050, according to market analysis, which would significantly dent U.S. emissions. But the climate only cares about absolute emissions, and exporting gas-powered vehicles means carbon will still enter the atmosphere and cause temperatures to rise.
In the absence of policy to address the unintended consequences, some analysts have suggested the return of an Obama-era program known as “Cash for Clunkers,'' which bought back old cars in a bid to stimulate the automotive industry following the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
While that program, which lasted four months, was fraught with administrative challenges and other problems — including instances of clunkers meant for the scrapyard being exported abroad — it was popular. Within a week of its implementation, the $1 billion allocated was maxed out, leading Congress to approve an additional $2 billion.
A 2020 Congressional Service Report said studies showed the program "achieved one of its main objectives of improving fuel efficiency,” but sales of efficient cars slumped after the program ended.
Bledsoe believes that a revamped Biden-era program with emissions reduction as the core motive, backed by a law that requires that “the most highly polluting vehicles not be sold overseas” could have a major impact. “We have to avoid those vehicles from becoming a long-term source of emissions [and] at the same time, we try to help developing countries have better transportation,” Bledsoe said. “So there is an economic and moral element here.”
The U.N. Environment Programme has called for stricter rules from both exporting and importing countries.
“Developed countries must stop exporting vehicles that fail environment and safety inspections and are no longer considered roadworthy in their own countries, while importing countries should introduce stronger quality standards,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in 2020.
Already countries such as South Africa have banned used car imports, while Mauritius has instituted a policy that allows cars made within the past three years to be imported and reduced taxes on new and used hybrid and electric cars.
Global efforts to restrict the international trade in used cars would have to include other key exporters including the EU, China and Japan. But without U.S. leadership, any efforts could end up failing the climate. “We are all in the climate crisis together, and if we simply end up exporting all our emissions, that doesn't help the global climate at all,” Bledsoe said.