As World Celebrates End of Leaded Petrol, Campaign Lessons Can Be Applied to Phasing Out Fossil Fuel – UNEP
Air pollution in Mashhad, Iran

When Algerian service stations stopped providing leaded petrol last month, this marked the successful end to a global campaign to eliminate this “major threat to human and planetary health”.

Celebrating the official end of the use of leaded petrol on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres said that when the global campaign to eliminate the use of tetraethyllead (TEL) as a petrol additive started in 2002, 117 countries were still using TEL.

“Today, there are none. Lead in fuel has run out of gas, thanks to the cooperation of governments in developing nations, thousands of businesses, and millions of ordinary people,” said Gutteres in a video message to a media briefing.

“Ending the use of leaded petrol will prevent more than one million premature deaths each year from heart disease, strokes, and cancer, and protect children whose IQs are damaged by exposure to lead. This achievement again shows what we can accomplish when we work together across countries and sectors for the common good.”  

The head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which led the campaign, said that the same approach to TEL elimination should also be applied to the phasing out of fossil fuels.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen told the media briefing that companies used TEL to improve engine performance but this “was emitted in exhaust fumes, causing airborne pollution, and soil pollution”, later damaging the catalytic converters that reduced up to 95% of the common air pollutants. 

“Basically, industry rushed to adopt the first and cheapest technology that worked despite its grave implications for environmental health and for the environment, while ignoring sustainable and clean technologies. And that kind of sounds familiar,” said Andersen.

“But in the global response to leaded fuel shows that humanity can learn from and fix mistakes that we made,” she added.

The campaign’s success rested on an innovative public-private partnership, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, with over 75 members.

The campaign had to overcome resistance from companies producing the lead additive by promoting investments to replace lead that maintained the same octane levels and were not costly, she said.

“The success we celebrate today provides some clear lessons on dealing with [current] environmental challenges lessons,” added Andersen.

These included the importance of independent science, free media, clear goals, interventions that stressed the benefits for people, and high-level political commitment and leadership. 

“Now we must apply these lessons in developing better vehicle standards to deal with carbon dioxide emissions from the global transport sector as we transition away from fossil fuels, in ridding the world of single-use plastics, in restoring forests and other degraded ecosystems, in protecting wildlife,” said Andersen.

“We can do this together in partnership but we will only succeed if we work together as we have done on to unleaded fuels.”

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen

Cleaner used cars for Africa

Beninese politician Luc Gnacadja, former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, told the media briefing that airborne lead pollution in his country’s cities had topped the list of environment-related health issues in 2000

“The socio-economic costs of leaded gasoline in only four of our major cities was estimated to be equivalent to 1.2% of our GDP in 2013,” said Gnacadja, who described the elimination of leaded fuel as “an outstanding success”.

However, Gnacadja said that poor-quality used vehicles imported by African countries were contributing to “high and rising urban pollution and high road accidents and fatalities”. 

“It is projected that, in the next two decades, the number of light-duty vehicles in Africa will triple, and the demand for oil will double,” he said.

Only two African countries had made moves to ensure that imported used vehicles “meet the minimum environment and safety requirements”, but if such measures were uniformly adopted across the continent, this could make African vehicles up to 80% cleaner, and reduce accidents by up to 50%,” he concluded.

Image Credits: Flickr, Mohammad Hossein Taaghi.

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