The UN secretary general and environmentalists have welcomed a declaration by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the end of leaded petrol in the face of years of “underhand” opposition.
As Algeria became the last country to stop selling the toxic fuel last month, the two-decade campaign to ban it has been called a “milestone for multilateralism”.
“Lead in fuel has run out of gas,” António Guterres said in a video broadcast.
The secretary general said the initiative had succeeded due to the “cooperation of governments in developing nations, thousands of businesses and millions of ordinary people”. The campaign was spearheaded by the global Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, established at the 2002 world summit on sustainable development, which brought together 73 organisations representing fuel and vehicle industries, civil society and global experts.
Guterres said: “Today we celebrate a milestone in unilateralism, the culmination of united global efforts to rid the world of lead in petrol, a major threat to human and planetary health.
“This international success story comes after the 20-year public-private initiative led by [UNEP]. When the campaign began, 86 countries were still using leaded fuel. Today, there are none.”
He said the world should not relax after the successful campaign but should “now turn the same commitment to ending the triple crises of climate disruption, biodiversity loss and pollution”, starting with a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, said the long struggle to get rid of leaded petrol could be replicated in eliminating other pollutants such as coal if studies on “agreeable alternatives” were done. Burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 8.7 million deaths in 2018, or one in five of all people who died in that year, a study found.
Andersen said: “Is this a blueprint to phase out coal? We will let science speak and tell us how it affects health or the countries’ GDP and local air pollution. We know that millions die each year due to coal pollution. What are the alternatives? How do we invest in them? In Africa, for example, we are working on electric mobility.
“Like any technological experiment, this will take time,” she added. “But it is an important element, not just in wealthy countries.”
However, Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace energy campaigner in South Africa, said the phase-out of leaded petrol showed the world could “absolutely phase out all fossil fuels” and that African governments must “give no more excuses for the fossil fuel industry”.
In the US, Janet McCabe, deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA was working with the Federal Aviation Administration to address the continued use of leaded fuel in some aircraft operating in the country.
The aviation body said there were 167,000 piston-engine aircraft in the country that use aviation fuel, or “avgas”. This is believed to be the only remaining transport fuel containing lead. This is to prevent serious engine “knock”, which can result in a sudden engine failure. Through various initiatives, the industry was supposed to identify an unleaded fuel by 2018 but the testing completion date was pushed back to 2021.
McCabe said: “There are no known safe levels of lead exposure but we are glad work is going on to test alternatives to aviation fuels in the US, especially now that we have a president who understands the value of tackling climate change. We need to use the same power of collective efforts to protect the vulnerable among us.”
Andersen said efforts to banish other pollutants may face similar challenges to those that slowed the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles’ momentum to end leaded petrol, which included a sceptical transport industry and unbudgeted capital costs for governments that needed to recalibrate their refineries.
Andersen said: “For lead, we had to deal with the myths. Some said older cars could not function well without leaded petrol, that the engines won’t work. Then you had governments that had to spend resources they would rather not have spent to work on their refineries.”
Andersen said some corporations used underhand dealings to derail efforts to stop sales. She cited a 2010 case in a London court, in which directors of Innospec, a US chemicals firm, pleaded guilty to bribing officials in Indonesia and Iraq to secure contracts to supply tetraethyl lead, the fuel additive that had by then been phased out in many countries. Reuters reported that bribes in Indonesia were not only meant to secure sales but to “hinder legislative moves in Jakarta to ban the substance”.
But Guterres said countries should be inspired to coalesce around the cause of removing pollutants from the environment to “create a world of peace that works with nature, not against it”.
“We need international cooperation, compromise, solidarity – all guided by science,” the secretary general said.