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UK exports polluting vehicles

Study shows UK ‘offshores emissions’ by exporting dirtier used cars
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Car transportation truck and used cars

A new study by researchers at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science reveals that used vehicles sent from Great Britain to lower-income countries fail British roadworthiness standards, are more polluting and less fuel efficient than those sent to be scrapped.

Published in Nature Climate Change, the study reveals that exported used vehicles generate at least 13-53% more emissions per mile than those that are scrapped or on the road in Great Britain.

The researchers used mandatory annual vehicle inspections – known as MOT tests – of all 65 million used vehicles on British roads between 2005 and 2021 to compare the pollution and emissions intensity of vehicles exported with those scrapped, destroyed or driven in Great Britain.

Exported car emissions

The data revealed substantially higher rates of carbon dioxide and pollution generation in exported vehicles.

Among the seven million vehicles legally exported from Great Britain, exported used cars generated at least 13% more carbon dioxide per kilometre than scrapped cars, and 17% more than used vehicles on British roads.

Exported vehicles were also 3.3 miles per gallon worse on fuel efficiency than those sent to the scrapyard.

‘Our study reveals that the UK, a leading global exporter of used vehicles with high vehicle emissions standards inside its own borders, offshores vehicle emissions to lower-income countries who are already suffering the most from climate change.’

Lead author, Research Associate at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Demographic Science Unit at Oxford Population Health

Double standards

Over half of all vehicle exports to low- and middle-income countries originate from the EU and UK, with virtually all remaining trade coming from Japan and the United States.

While these countries maintain high emission standards domestically, almost all countries that receive their vehicle exports have no emission standards of their own.

Significantly higher nitrogen oxide rates – an air pollutant that causes millions of deaths each year and can be effectively avoided when emission standards are enforced – were emitted per kilometre from exported than scrapped cars.

Failing UK standards

It was striking that almost all exported diesel cars (98%) failed the European Union’s EURO-6 diesel emissions standards for nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, and most (83%) were predicted to fail the carbon dioxide standards.

The study also highlights the issues surrounding the manipulation of emissions testing data which adds to the challenges of measuring emissions.

‘This study shows that we have been exporting dirtier cars than those we send to the scrapyard. This presents an enormous opportunity to clean up emissions in lower-income countries, simply by applying our own domestic emission standards to vehicles sent offshore.’

Lead author, Research Associate at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Demographic Science Unit at Oxford Population Health

Cleaning up car exports

The study calls for the UK’s world-leading vehicle emissions standards to be applied to all exported vehicles which would see cleaner instead of dirtier vehicles sent to lower-income countries.

Such measures would reduce economic burdens of vehicle ownership as cleaner vehicles require lower ongoing maintenance and fuel costs, and align with increasing cleaner air and climate action calls.

‘This study uses existing government data in a novel way to uncover considerable offshoring of vehicle emissions to low- and middle-income countries. The findings are striking and call for an evaluation of existing policies and practices around car pollution and exported vehicles.’

Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Demographic Science Unit

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