Officials from the United Nations Environment Program announced on Aug. 30 that Algeria, which was the last country on Earth to use automotive leaded gasoline, stopped producing it earlier this year and depleted its supply in July. The announcement concludes a two-decade campaign by the UN to end global consumption of leaded gasoline in cars and trucks, emissions from which are linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, decreasing cognitive function, and other health problems, as well as air and water pollution. UNEP estimates that the phaseout will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths annually.
Up to the 1970s, almost all gasoline contained lead, which was added to crude oil in the refining process in the belief that it made car engines perform more powerfully. But as evidence accumulated linking lead to health problems (and even to crime waves), governments began to turn against it. Japan outlawed leaded gas in 1980; most European countries and the US followed suit in the 1990s, and China and India phased it out by 2000.
But lead was still common in fuel in Africa and the Middle East. In 2002, UNEP organized a coalition of African governments and oil companies to promote the phaseout of leaded gas, the supposed vehicular benefits of which have been found to apply only to very old cars driven in extreme conditions. Lead was history in sub-Saharan Africa by 2006, and by 2014 was found only in Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea, and Afghanistan.
Political challenges made those countries difficult to lobby in, said Jane Akumu, who leads clean mobility programs in Africa for UNEP. But they all eventually fallen in line, in response to sustained lobbying by the UNEP group for governments to acknowledge the health risks, change their fuel tax structures to make unleaded gas the cheaper option, and implement legal bans on leaded gas imports.
The next goal, Akumu said, is to get more governments to enforce restrictions on sulfur levels in diesel fuel, which in Africa remain orders of magnitude higher than what is allowed in the US and EU and is a major contributor to asthma and other respiratory diseases. After that, the big prize will be shifting more of the continent to electric vehicles. That will be difficult, in part due to a lack of reliable electricity and charging infrastructure, and because the majority of vehicle imports to Africa are used. An accelerated transition to EVs in the EU and US could mean a tidal wave of cheap used gas cars in Africa.
But South Africa, Egypt, and others have implemented bans on used car imports, and a growing number of delivery and mobility startups on the continent are using EVs. So the end of leaded gas could be just he beginning of much cleaner air across the continent.
The original version of this piece stated that all leaded fuels had been phased out globally. In fact, leaded fuels are still used in certain small aircraft, boats, racecars, and other specialty vehicles. The UN announcement pertains only to gasoline for standard cars and trucks.
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