UN hosts online ‘celebration’ to mark end of leaded petrol

Organisation predicts ban will prevent 1.2m deaths per year and save $2.45tn

While many countries have already begun transitioning to electric cars, 1.2 billion new vehicles will hit the road in coming decades, and many of these will use fossil fuels.  Photograph: iStock

While many countries have already begun transitioning to electric cars, 1.2 billion new vehicles will hit the road in coming decades, and many of these will use fossil fuels. Photograph: iStock

 

The United Nations hosted an online “celebration” on Monday to mark the end of leaded petrol, predicting its elimination across the planet would prevent 1.2 million premature deaths a year and reduce health costs by $2.45 trillion globally.

When service stations in Algeria stopped providing leaded petrol in July, its use ended globally following an almost two-decades-long campaign by the UN-led global Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV).

Since 1922, tetraethyllead was used as a petrol additive to improve engine performance but by the 1970s, when almost all petrol produced around the world contained lead, evidence began to emerge on its catastrophic effects on public health and the environment.

It was phased out in the developed world by 2000, and when the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) began its campaign to eliminate lead in petrol in 2002, it was considered one of the most serious environmental threats to human health. It causes heart disease, stroke and cancer, impairs development of the human brain – especially harming children – with studies suggesting it reduces IQ significantly. It has contaminated air, dust, soil, drinking water and food crops.

Banning leaded petrol has been estimated to prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths per year, to save $2.45 trillion for the global economy and to decrease crime rates, the UNEP declared.

‘Huge milestone’

“Successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone,” said UNEP director Inger Andersen. “Overcoming a century of deaths and illnesses that affected hundreds of millions and degraded the environment worldwide, we are invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility,” she added.

The PCFV is a public-private partnership that brought all stakeholders to the table, she noted, while overcoming local challenges and resistance from oil dealers and producers of lead – as well as investing in refinery upgrades.

This was not easy, she underlined, as myths were spread that engines could not accommodate unleaded petrol, bribery was proven in court cases in the UK and US, and oil companies increased prices on the basis of having to change refining processes.

Despite this progress, “the global vehicle fleet” continues to contribute to the threat of air, water and soil pollution, as well as to the climate crisis, she confirmed. The transport sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related global carbon emissions and is set to grow to one-third by 2050.

While many countries have already begun transitioning to electric cars, 1.2 billion new vehicles will hit the road in coming decades, and many of these will use fossil fuels, especially in developing countries. This includes millions of poor-quality used vehicles exported from Europe, the US and Japan, to mid- and low-income countries, according to Luc Gnacadja, former environment minister in Benin.

This contributes to planet warming and air polluting traffic – and causes accidents, he said.

Green future

The UN-backed alliance of governments, businesses and civil society successfully rid the world of this toxic fuel and is testament to the power of multilateralism to move the world towards sustainability and a cleaner, greener future, said US EPA deputy administrator Janet McCabe.

Urgent action was still needed to stop lead pollution from other sources – such as paints and batteries. The EPA was also monitoring the effects of lead used in aviation fuels near airports, she added.

When the PCFV was set, 117 countries were still using leaded petrol. In 2006, the first major success was achieved when sub-Saharan Africa went unleaded.

Research published this year by Imperial College London found airborne particles are still highly lead-enriched compared to natural background levels in London. Up to 40 per cent comes from the legacy of leaded petrol, the study found.