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Owning a personal car fifteen to twenty years ago was almost a luxury. Today, nearly every household has a car and nearly every car has an owner. More interestingly, younger and younger people are buying and owning cars.
Statistics from the islands show that thousands of cars (info.japanesecartrade.com) are imported into the Caribbean from Japan annually. The ease of purchase and shipping facilitated by the internet makes the process nearly seamless. But there is a big problem.
Eight of every ten cars imported have or are nearing the age of serviceability. Many of these vehicles will retire after a few years of use with the stark reality being that they will need to be disposed of. Already many pristine local communities are becoming unsightly junkyards. There are no recycling facilities or approved holding areas to dispose of these derelict vehicles. A common practice is to abandon an old car on the roadside, backyard, beach or wherever they will not cause an immediate obstruction. Soon, Caribbean communities will look less and less like the lush green paradise they are known as and more and more like a repository of scrap junkies-imprints which clearly remind us that globalization is no longer a far-away or far-fetched concept but a reality that we must be prepared to contend with. The transformation of Caribbean paradise into metal junkyards brings with it new challenges and is counter intuitive to efforts of building climate resilient societies.
Let’s set the record straight. Cars have a finite life span which depends on human-use factors. The pollution level a car emits is related to the age of the engine. The engine of a car has three phases. The first phase, the “running in” phase (0 to 6 months), emits the lowest level of pollution. The second phase, also called the normal period in the life of the engine, spans 6 months to 15 years. At this stage the levels of pollution from the engine is quite high. In the third and final phase, 15 to 25 years, there is a sharp rise in emissions. Most of the cars imported into the region falls within the high to sharp-rise category (second and third phase) leading to worrying problems for environmentalists, both in terms of human health concerns and disposal of scrap metal, once these cars become inoperable.
Several studies including that of the European Fuel Oxygenate Association confirm the impact of car emissions on human health and the environment. Long-term exposure in humans over 30 years is known to cause premature death due to respiratory-related problems. Pollution from cars is also the leading cause of bronchitis and asthma in children and adults alike. Low molecular weight compounds are irritants and can induce drowsiness and other complications whilst high molecular weight compounds are suspected of being mutagens and carcinogens. Ayayi (2002) have linked high rate of pollution in Nigeria to increased importation of used vehicles.
Unfortunately, the importation of used cars is not likely to subside unless governments enforce stricter measures and age limits. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, has imposed age restriction on imported vehicles from Japan. The law states that an imported car must not be older than four years. In other islands such as The Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda, there are no age limits with duties dependent on engine size and VAT, and other excise taxes being applicable. The reality is that older used cars are cheap and affordable. Cash purchase rather than through loans, makes the process even more attractive. The purchase of a car under five years is still a significant financial undertaking and back and forth process with the financial institutions providing the loan service.
The reality that Caribbean government must contend with is that more and more households will own used imported cars as income levels rise. So then, how can the region deal with the inevitable? How can we balance the freedom of owning a car with the need to protect the natural environment? How can we better manage the derelict vehicles scattered over the place with minimal strain on financial resources of central and local governments? There are plenty of unexplored options, tough arguments and downright simple actions that even the least educated of people can undertake. Let’s see what can be done practically and resolutely to fix this explosive environmental challenge.
First, Caribbean governments should provide more incentives to make new cars more affordable. Lowering up tight duties will very likely increase the purchase of newer cars with lower emission issues. The overall effect on human health would improve and likewise the longevity of cars removing the stress on the environment. Simply, this action is like kicking the can down the road, buying more time until a proper solution is found.
Second, the purchase of older vehicles should be twinned with training programmes in metal recycling technologies for the regions. After all, every used car shipped to the region is somewhat a quick fix for Japan. Japan is worrying less and less about how to deal with its aging vehicles as new lucrative markets for used cars open up in the Caribbean. The region should speak with an irresistible loud voice demanding investment from Japan to better manage the disposal of derelict vehicles. In an era where trade is used to leverage and protect self-interest, the Caribbean is doing very little to exploit this new opening.
Third, why should Japan not buy back the metal it shipped as cars to the region in the first place? There is no comprehensive trade policy for the region aimed at preserving highly vulnerable ecosystem in the Caribbean. The question is: who will look after the self-interest of Caribbean societies, our natural environment and health concern? It’s time to enshrine a trade policy with climate change or Caribbean national security. A prudent stance would be to recycle these metals into useful products. The large hull cargo vessels which brings the cars to the regions sail back empty, without a single made-in-the-Caribbean commodity. This is becoming ridiculous — in-actions which put our environmental management efforts into grave peril.
Fourth and better still, shouldn’t Caribbean governments explore and set up a regional scrap metal recycling facility funded by Japan? The answer is why not? This could generate scores of jobs in the region where job growth is in near perpetual tail spin.
Fifth, it is time to get a policy and plan into action to phase out certain type of combustion engine systems and open up the market for hybrid to low metal-use vehicles. Setting up the infrastructure for hybrids is a long to medium term process which should be embedded within the fabric and moral conscience of any climate resilient strategist. A world of green jobs would emerge. And why can’t the Caribbean take the lead in hybrid-powered vehicles or low metal-use vehicles? Why can’t the Caribbean become the first green hub? Why can’t we become the first green economy?
Sixth, it is not far-fetched to put in place vehicle emission test centers to ascertain compliance with regulated environmental standards. In my opinion, every vehicle entering the region should be subjected to a basic approved emission test. Vehicle owners should also be made to understand the need to do regular emission checks and maintenance — a type of voluntary compliance where points are awarded to lower insurance premiums.
If by now I still I have not answered whether a new or used car is better for the environment then, more head spinning arguments will need to be unearthed. Irrefutably, a new vehicle which has been manufactured with equipment-friendly technologies gets a thumbs up but an older, cheaper used vehicle with good gas mileage is ridiculously tempting to a prospective buyer.
These arguments are not new and even the United States Department of Energy has weighed in advising that the most important factor in deciding between the purchase of a new or used car is the kind of mileage you can get. You can improve the gas mileage by keeping tires well inflated, reducing load in the trunk and performing regular maintenance checks. Buying a new car creates a new carbon footprint that simple does not exist if you buy a used one.
Now back to my home point: the need to salvage and preserve our natural environment and dealing with the derelict vehicle challenge. Let’s take firm action and put a broad strategy on the table – one that unlocks the ideal of true Caribbean prowess, leadership and a desire to preserve our environment and our identity.