Malawi’s excessive taxes on used motor vehicles: Hiding behind air pollution and climate change

A few days ago it was reported in an article on Nyasa Times that officials in Malawi’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change management said that hiking excise duty levied on imported second-hand vehicles is helping the country to curb planet-warming emissions.

The current taxation on cars includes an import duty of 25%, an excise duty that varies due to year of make and engine capacity ranging from 5-100 %, a surtax of 16.5% and a K15,000 fixed destination inspection fees (DIF) for all items valued over K300,000.00.

People that have bought second hand cars from outside the country know that sometimes the taxes exceed the price that one paid for the car.

The principal secretary in the ministry responsible for Dr Yanira Ntupanyama, is quoted to have said that with the new measures in place government has managed to contain warming by cutting the amount of pollution by emissions from these old second-hand vehicles.malawi cars

In this article I shall analyse the alleged pollution caused by cars and whether the levels of pollution warrant these exorbitant taxes.

First it is true that cars emit air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and unburnt fuels (in form of hydrocarbons).  Carbon dioxide is a green house gas, i.e. it is a gas that contributes to global warming and climate change.  At high levels the other pollutants can cause a number of health effects.  It is also true that older cars emit more pollutants than new ones as they are less efficient.

Like most African countries, Malawi is very vulnerable to climate change.  It needs to be pointed out, however, that Africa’s contribution to the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is low and, according to 2011 Malawi’s Second National Communication to the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was projected to rise to a tiny 3.8% by 2010.  Global warming and climate change is a global issue and it needs concerted efforts from all countries.

According to the 2011 Malawi’s Second National Communication to the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), regarding green house gas emissions, the most significant sector is what is termed the ‘Agriculture Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’.

This sector, which includes emissions from agricultural livestock, chemical fertilisers, burning of agricultural residues and use of biomass fuels such as firewood, accounts for 95% of the total emissions in Malawi.  The Energy sector is the second largest emitter at 3.4%.  This sector includes emissions from combustion of and fugitive emissions from fossil based solid, liquid and gaseous fuels.  Taking into consideration the fact that this sector encompasses energy use both for industrial and transportation purposes, the contribution to climate change from cars in Malawi must be miniscule.

It is true also that old cars emit more carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons  and particulate matter (smoke).  I refer you to a publicly available online article on ambient volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide levels in Blantyre City, Malawi by Mapoma et al (2013).   Although the study shows that these motor vehicle emissions were increasing, the levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons were generally within acceptable levels.  In developing countries like Malawi the most significant contributor of particulate matter is the use of firewood.  Malawi and the entire region have never had an air pollution episode such as smog.  Previous State of Environment Reports rank air pollution in Malawi well after other environmental issues such as deforestation and water pollution.

Malawian workers are among the least paid in the world with degree holding workers earning much lower than what manual labourers and domestic workers earn in other countries.  It is a known fact that very few Malawians can afford new cars.  This does not imply that the taxes on new cars are low as taxes on cars in Malawi are excessive by international standards.

A very small proportion of Malawian workers can afford second hand cars with the result that owning a car determines ones status in Malawi.  According to Wikipedia there are 8 road motor vehicles per 1000 inhabitants in Malawi. This is tiny compared to other countries like Zimbabwe (114), Botswana (133) and USA (897).

This cursory analysis indicates that contribution of cars to green house gas emissions (that lead to global warming and climate change) in Malawi is very small.  It would have made sense if these drastic measures were being made on emissions from agricultural livestock, chemical fertilisers, burning of agricultural residues and use of biomass fuels such as firewood as they account for 95% of total emissions.

The analysis also indicates that although air pollution is a problem in Malawi, it is not so serious as to warrant these drastic measures. We know that drastic measures are needed for drastic times.  Let such drastic measures be put in place to tackle the seemingly unsolvable problem of deforestation in Malawi.  But not air pollution or emission of green house gases in Malawi.

Forcing Malawians to pay huge motor vehicle taxes from their meager salaries in order to reduce the already small contribution of cars to green house gas emissions in Malawi is very punitive, inconsiderate and a gross abuse.  It does not make sense.  The reasons for these taxes are especially suspect as they were introduced at around the time there was a proposal to introduce taxes on bread, salt, meat offal, water etc. Let government come in the open and give the real reasons why Malawians are forced to pay exorbitant taxes on motor vehicles, especially used motor vehicles.

*Wells Utembe, Lecturer in environmental sciences, Malawi Polytechnic

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