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Emissions Standards: Exporting Pollution

August 3, 2009 at 9:44 am
By Orion Martin '11

The Obama administration is touting the success of its Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), which offers a several thousand dollar discount on the purchase of a new car for US residents who trade in their old inefficient cars. Although the program has received mixed reviews, it has been enormously popular.

Such programs are common in other developed countries. When I first traveled in Japan, I was stunned at how new all of the cars seemed to be. Japan has some of the strictest emmissions standards in the world, and the streets are full of brand new fuel-efficient cars. Where, I wondered, could Japan be hiding all of its clunkers?

The answer is Myanmar. From, "Myanmar is somehow a graveyard for Japanese cars." With some slight modifications (there are no seatbelts in Myanmar), Japanese cars go straight from the streets of Japan, where they are considered dangerously polluting, to the streets of Myanmar. Some of the cars look like they like they might just tumble apart at any moment. During one taxi ride the other day, the driver reached inside the door to pull the window up while we were stopped at a red light.

It's not just cars that come from Japan either. At least half of Yangon's public transit system is Japanese buses, still covered in warning signs written in Japanese that say, "Beware of Sudden Braking." I once saw an ambulance whose siren was politely warning people in Japanese.

Japan is often praised for its strict environmental regulations which have done much to clean up the country, but by selling cars old cars to Myanmar, Japan is exporting its pollution. Exporting pollution to poor countries is nothing new. For a good example, read this stunning piece about computer recycling in China.

Unlike many previous emissions standards, the Obama administration's CARS program requires that dealers destroy the engines of the traded in vehicles so that they can't be resold. If the US had instead adopted stricter nationwide regulations, there would have been no reason that dealers couldn't simply sell the polluting cars to poorer countries with lower standards. In this way, the CARS program has added benefits compared to more traditional solutions to air pollution.

Who knew that the US was such a dynamic leader in environmental policy?


Orion Martin '11 is currently volunteer teaching in Yangon, Myanmar.

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