There has been an explosion of car ownership in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia over the last three decades. The once almost empty roads of the communist-era are now clogged with cars, contributing to some the continent’s most polluted cities, a problem made worse by the fact that with incomes still relatively low many people can only afford older models imported from richer countries.
Incomes that continue to lag behind those in Western Europe and the widespread availability of cheaper used cars means that while the markets for new cars are expanding, imports of older cars also persist. This situation was reinforced by the international economic crisis of the late 2000s that was a setback for the new car markets across Central and Eastern Europe.
Data from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) shows that the average age of passenger cars is considerably higher in the eastern part of the EU, with the oldest being in Lithuania, Poland and Romania at an average of 18 years. Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary and Latvia are not far behind at 16 years, though there is also a large share of older cars in some south European countries, in particular Greece and Portugal which both average at 14 years. In fact, says the association, the EU motor vehicle fleet is getting older year-on-year.
Average age of passenger cars in EU countries. Source: ACEA
Banger bans planned
Some governments and city authorities in Eastern Europe are already acting, introducing bans on the oldest, most polluting cars.
In Montenegro new rules came into effect on October 15 under which all vehicles imported into the tiny Adriatic country must be equipped with engines complying with the Euro 4 environmental standard, and the new vehicles imported must comply with the tightest regulation, Euro 6.
As in other Western Balkans countries, the market for new cars in Montenegro is small, and most cars are older models imported from Western Europe. As a result, pollution from cars is relatively high, though the biggest problem in the region remains pollution from coal fired power plants and other industrial polluters.
Neighbouring Albania will follow suit, with a ban on imports of cars, which are more than 10 years old starting from January 1, 2019, Tourism Minister Blendi Klosi announced on World Car Free Day on September 22.
The measure is aimed at approaching EU standards for reducing vehicle emissions, as old cars are one of the main polluters in the country. The decision to ban old cars will also help protect the environment and in preserving tourist areas, Klosi said in a Facebook post. The capital Tirana has the country’s worst air quality following an explosion of car ownership in recent years, but as one of Europe’s poorest countries most people can only afford second hand cars.
Further east, Azerbaijan took similar action four years ago, enforcing Euro-4 emission standards from April 2014, and this — combined with the dramatically slowing economy and slump in purchasing power at that time — led to a sharp fall in imports of used cars. In the first half of 2015, car imports halved compared to the first half of the previous year, according to data from the State Statistical Committee (Azstat). Until April 2014, most vehicles imported into Azerbaijan were second hand or older cars that did not comply with Euro-4 standards, imported from Europe through neighbouring Georgia.
The mayor of Tbilisi, the capital of neighbouring Georgia, is pushing for a similar ban, calling the situation in Tbilisi “a complete disaster”. Kakha Kaladze told a conference in July that the number of imported vehicles is increasing by 7% a year, and that 98% of them are out-dated, according to a city hall statement. Overall, 90% of private cars in the country are out-dated.
“The first thing to be done alongside with technical inspection is to halt importing old cars … This might trigger some dissatisfaction, but this is the step that is to be taken. The matter concerns the health of our kids,” the mayor concluded.
Kaladze’s reference to “some dissatisfaction” is a valid point. As incomes increase in most East European countries post-crisis, buying a car is on many peoples’ wish list, but new cars — even the relatively cheap models produced by regional manufacturers such as Romania’s Dacia — are still out of range.
And while some countries are restricting used car imports, others have refrained from taking such a step — not least because of the potential backlash from consumers. Poland has been mulling a ban on used car imports since the early 2000s after it joined the EU and saw imports soar, but so far has held off from taking such a step.
Last year Romania took a backwards step, lifting the environment-related car registration fee previously charged by the state, which led to an immediate hike in used car imports. Six months later, data from the statistics office, INS, revealed that under 20% of the newly registered automobiles in H1 were new cars, while more than 80% were imported used cars, which soared by 89% y/y to nearly 240,000 in H1 according to bne IntelliNews calculations.
The growing numbers of cars — old and new — are contributing to rising air pollution levels in cities across Europe, west as well as east. “Air pollution from motor vehicles has, in many countries, replaced coal smoke as the major cause for concern; and the continuing growth in vehicle use means that efforts to reduce emissions from individual vehicles are in danger of being overtaken by increases in the volume of traffic,” says a report from the European Environment Agency. “In much of eastern Europe the continued use of rather old cars, which are unable to meet modern pollution control requirements, means that efforts to control pollution from this source are going to be increasingly difficult,” it adds.
“Dirty diesel” exports
The situation could be set to worsen as a consequence of the “dieselgate” scandal, that started with the revelations that German car giant Volkswagen had installed illegal software to allow its cars to cheat emissions tests.
According to green transport campaigner Transport & Environment (T&E) there has been little action taken to fix emission control systems in “dirty diesel” cars; instead, national and city governments are considering new restrictions on diesel cars that could see certain models banned from the roads. In response, drivers are looking to sell their diesel cars before the bans some into effect. “Most of these dirty diesels will end up in Central & Eastern European countries, exporting pollution from the West to the East,” predicts T&E.
“The biggest Dieselgate legacy is the current fleet of at least 43 million dirty diesels, that now risks being shifted to less wealthy countries as desperate cities are rightly trying to get rid of them,” says a T&E report. Its research shows that in 2017 alone, 350,000 “dirty” second-hand diesel cars, most of them from Germany, were exported to Poland.
Green transport campaigner Transport & Environment expects "dirty diesel" exports to Poland will continue for over a decade.
“The flow of cheap, unfixed, second hand diesels will simply shift air pollution problem east rather than solving it, deepening the existing East-West divide on air quality,” commented the organisation. “There is a clear need for measures to avoid polluting second hand diesels being dumped in Eastern and Central European countries … This is against the core values of the European project — all EU citizens have equal right to clean air.”
It’s not clear yet what action Brussels will take to address the problem. However, European Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska commented on the situation at the beginning of October, saying that the Commission was concerned that German automakers would try to export old diesel cars to Eastern Europe, Reuters reported at the time. “Exports would mean pushing the air quality problem from the west to the east,” Bienkowska told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Nonetheless, a large market still exists for older used cars — including “dirty diesel” models — in Eastern Europe, regardless any concerns over their environmental impact.