As the West rushes toward electric cars, here are the unwanted gas consumers

Standing on rocky ground in the crowded car park at FIFA Park, Rakib Yaya haggles over the price of a dark red car. It’s one of a few hundred vehicles, standing in long lines stretched across a wide area – some shiny and new-looking, others wet and dusty.

The car Yaya has in mind, a 2008 American-made Ford Escape, is for sale for about $4,000. They’re relatively affordable – American cars are cheaper than most other brands in the lot – and he wants to upgrade from his motorcycle to a car. He said he was not interested in the history of the car, only that he could afford it.

But how that Ford ended up here — in one of the largest car parks in the coastal city of Cotonou — helps tell a larger story about how many Western gas-guzzling cars have begun a second life in West Africa.

The 14-year-old Ford arrived in Benin from the US last year, after being sold at a car auction.

Vehicle records reviewed by CNN show it has three previous owners in Virginia and Maryland, and has racked up more than 252,000 miles on the road. It had a previous recall for its power steering, but unlike some of the other cars on the ground it arrived in relatively good condition – no accidents reported.

This vintage SUV is one of the millions of used cars that arrive each year in West Africa from wealthy countries such as Japan, South Korea, European countries, and increasingly from the United States. Many of these end up in Benin, one of Africa’s largest importers of used cars.

Ships at the autonomous port of Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. Cars get here from Western countries, including the United States. – Prosper Dagnici/AFP/Getty Images

The flow of used cars destined for West African ports is only expected to increase as the West switches to electric cars. As rich countries set aggressive goals to move consumers toward electric cars to cut pollution from global warming, gas-powered cars won’t necessarily go away.

Instead, many will be shipped thousands of miles away to developing countries like Benin, where the population is growing, along with the demand for used cars.

Experts say the effect will be to shift climate and environmental problems to the countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis, undermining their own attempts to cut pollution from a warming planet.

Demand explosion

The global used light vehicle market grew by almost 20% from 2015 to 2019, when more than 4.8 million vehicles were exported. There was a slight drop in exports in 2020 when the Covid pandemic began, but now the numbers are “growing very quickly,” Rob de Jong, an official with the United Nations Environment Program told CNN.

The United States exports about 18% of the world’s used cars, according to data from the United Nations Environment Program. These travel all over the world, including the Middle East and Central America, but many go to Nigeria, Benin and Ghana.

Some of these cars are salvaged cars that have been in accidents, flooded or very old – parts for which are being auctioned off. Others are completely used cars that American auto dealers are looking to offload.

An imported car that had an accident awaiting repair. – Nemi Prinsewil/CNN

“A lot of them will be two- to five-year Hyundais, Toyotas, and sedans,” said Dmitry Shbarshin, marketing director for West Coast Shipping, a company that specializes in shipping cars internationally. “It’s mostly the economy cars that get shipped there.”

He said Sheparchin and other companies “such as FedEx” for cars. His company typically specializes in high-quality cars, but also ships cheaper cars.

In major African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, more than 90% of cars and trucks are used from abroad. In Kenya, where de Jong is based, the vehicle fleet doubles every eight years; He said streets that were once empty of cars are now choked with traffic.

There is a huge appetite for these used vehicles. “You have a very small population that is getting richer and richer by the day,” said Etop Ipke, CEO of Autochek Africa, an online car marketplace. “The first thing they want to do, since they can afford things, is some commuting,” he said.

However, unlike the United StatesAnd Few potential buyers have access to credit, so new cars are often out of reach.

“This is the fundamental reason we can’t improve the quality” of the cars sold, said Ipke. “It’s not like people want to drive used cars; it’s an issue of affordability.”

Experts say the demand for used cars could explode further as electric cars are increasingly used in the West to supply used cars to African countries. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly one in five cars sold globally this year will be electric, compared to less than 5% in 2020. China, Europe and the United States are leading the electric vehicle market.

In states like New York and Florida, where consumers are buying more electric vehicles, dealers are increasingly looking abroad as a place to sell their older gas-powered models, according to Matt Trapp, regional vice president at the mega auto auction company in Mannheim.

These countries also have strong port operations, which makes them an ideal place to ship used cars to Africa. “It really establishes an integrated dynamic,” Trapp told CNN.

“I’m not surprised to see how strong the export game is,” said Trapp. “We will see this dynamic more and more. When [auto dealers] Seeing the demand in other markets, they will find a way to move the metal there.”

In the UNEP’s view, not all gas-powered cars are a concern — it’s the older cars, which tend to pollute more and are less safe, de Jong said. There is evidence that Africa’s growing demand for vehicles is actually causing more vintage and salvaged cars to be shipped to the continent recently than there was 20 years ago.

“What we’re seeing at the moment is a wide range of used vehicles being exported from the global north to the global south,” de Jong said. “Not only is the number increasing, the quality is decreasing.”

polluted or unsafe

In a section of Fifa Park, CNN found a 16-year-old Dodge Charger, age-worn.

We just sold it for 3 million XOF francs [around $4,500]The seller, who did not want to be named, said of the car that arrived in Benin from the United States two years ago.

Standing across from the charger is a 24-year-old Ford Winstar that was shipped to Benin from the US last year. It’s a cheaper alternative for lower-income car buyers who can’t afford newer models.

Car dealer Abdel Koura told CNN that American and Canadian cars are very desirable for importers, who often bring cars that have been involved in accidents.

“They repair these cars and resell them for a profit,” said Kora, which has more than 30 used cars imported from Canada.

Abdel Koura is a car dealer in the Fifa Park car park. – Nemi Prinsewil/CNN

Victor Ogoh, a Nigerian car dealer who frequents Viva Park, told CNN that it is often possible to tell the origin of a car by what is wrong with it.

“Most of the cars that smoke come from the United States,” Ogoh said. “Cars from Canada are mostly cars that have been flooded and are starting to develop electrical faults.”

Some imported vehicles lack catalytic converters, which are exhaust emissions control devices that filter out toxic gases. Catalytic converters contain precious metals including platinum and can fetch up to $100 on the black market. Ojo said some cars are shipped without catalytic converters or are removed by dealers upon arrival.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, millions of cars shipped to Africa and Asia from the United States, Europe and Japan are “polluting or unsafe”. “Often with faulty or missing components, they emit toxic fumes, adding to air pollution and hindering efforts to combat climate change.”

Regulations aimed at reducing pollution and increasing the safety of cars imported into West Africa tend to be weak. Recently, however, attempts have been made to clamp down on them.

In 2020, Benin and 14 other members of the Economic Community of West African States bloc agreed on a set of vehicle emissions regulations for the region, including a 10-year age limit for used vehicles and limits on the amount of carbon-polluting cars allowed to be produced.

However, it is not clear how strictly it will be applied.

Lines of used cars in FIFA Park. – Nemi Prinsewil/CNN

UNEP officials, including de Jong, have been in talks with U.S. and European Union officials about creating new regulations that would combat shipping of very old or unwanted cars to developing countries. These talks are still in their early stages and have not yet resulted in any commitments.

However, de Jong said climate change and global emissions have made talking about used cars “a different game”. He added that the increase in shipments of older and more polluting cars is a problem for developed countries as much as it is a problem for developing countries where they are being driven.

“Today with climate change it doesn’t really matter where the emissions happen,” said de Jong. “Whether in Washington, D.C., or Lagos, it makes no difference.”

Ipke doesn’t think it’s inevitable that Africa will accept all the old gas-powered cars the West no longer wants. He hopes that the transition to electric cars will come to the African continent as well, although that will require significant improvements in charging infrastructure.

“In terms of where Africa is going, the transition should not necessarily be from used cars to brand new combustion engines, but rather from used cars to electric vehicles,” said Ipke. “I think the continent should be ready for electric vehicles, used or new, because that is the direction the world is heading in.”

For Yaya, all of this seems a long way off. What brought him to the Fifa park, and to the old Ford SUV, was the lack of other options.

He said, “I can only buy what my money can afford.”

Nemi Princiuel reported from Benin, Ella Nielsen reported from Washington, D.C

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