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Inside the 20-year campaign to rid the world of leaded fuel

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On 9 December 1921 at a General Motors laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, chemists poured a teaspoonful of a compound called tetraethyl lead into a spasming motor.

They were hoping to stop what’s known as ‘knock’ – the wild and potentially engine-destroying vibrations that come from burning low-grade petrol.

Almost immediately after adding the tetraethyl lead, the motor began to “purr”, recounts Sharon Bertsch McGrayne in her book Prometheans in the Lab.

And so leaded petrol was born.

In the months to come, the fuel would be hailed as a breakthrough, one that would power a new generation of cars, planes and motorcycles.

There was just one problem: leaded exhaust is toxic. As leaded fuel spread to every corner of the world, it was followed by epidemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke and, most vividly, developmental delays in children.

“Leaded petrol was a huge mistake from the start, even if people may not have known it at the time,” said Rob De Jong, the head of sustainable mobility at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “The world would be dealing with the consequences for a century.”

Today that toxic legacy officially came to an end. At a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the last country to use leaded petrol, Algeria, had phased out the fuel. For the first time since 1923, no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol.

“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

The announcement followed a two-decade-long campaign, led by UNEP, to help the world abandon leaded fuel. The drive, part of the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, used a mix of science, public education, policy work and shame to score a stunning environmental victory. Estimates have found that every year, leaded fuel bans save more than 1.2 million lives while helping the global economy avoid $2.4 trillion in healthcare expenses and other costs.

“I think this may be the single biggest success story in the environmental field,” said Michael Walsh, the former head of motor vehicle pollution control programmes with the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency.

The toxic history of lead

Lead has long been known to be toxic. Ancient Romans were aware it could cause madness and death, though that didn’t stop them from using it in pipes, paints, cosmetics and as a wine sweetener.

In the 17th century, French nobility routinely poisoned familial rivals with lead, earning it the nickname poudre de la succession, or inheritance powder.

But for the burgeoning automotive industry in the 1920s, lead was a prayer answered. It was a cheap way to raise the octane level of fuel, allowing a smoother burn and ending the problem of “knock”, which could damage engines.

But not long after leaded petrol went on sale, workers at tetraethyl lead factories began to die: two perished in Ohio, four in Delaware, five in New Jersey.

The inventor of leaded petrol, Thomas Midgely, who had a habit of smearing tetraethyl lead on his hands to prove it was safe, would come down with a severe case of lead poisoning, McGrayne wrote in her book.

Despite its toxic origins, leaded fuel would spread like wildfire through the 1970s, reaching petrol pumps in every country on Earth.  

As it did, its impact on human health became clear. As early as the 1950s researchers realized that leaded exhaust was toxic and, in the decades to come it would be linked to high blood pressure, kidney failure, anaemia, blindness, infertility and other disorders.

But it was a 1979 study by American paediatrician Herbert Needleman that would galvanize a global movement against leaded fuel. Analyzing the lead content in the teeth of schoolchildren, Needleman found the chemical robbed kids of IQ points and caused a host of behavioural problems.

Over the next two decades, dozens of countries – from Japan to Germany, to the United States – would abandon leaded gas. But the fuel remained entrenched in many places, including much of the developing world.

The partnership begins

In 2002, at the United Nations-backed World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, a group of environmentalists, scientists, government officials and business leaders came together to form the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. Its goal: stamp out leaded petrol

The alliance thrust together clean air campaigners and oil industry executives – two groups who in the past had gone toe-to-toe over other emissions standards.

“This type of partnership had never been tried before,” recalled De Jong, one of its architects. “Some people said it would never work.”

Some founding members were angered that decades after being phased out in rich countries like the United States, leaded petrol was still being sold in poor ones.

“They were getting the dirtiest fuel. It was very frustrating,” said Walsh, the former EPA official who is now a consultant. “The people that were most vulnerable were getting poisoned.”

At the time, leaded petrol was still being used in 117 countries, including all of Africa, where it was having a devastating effect in fast-growing cities, like Lagos, Cairo, and Nairobi, said De Jong.

The focus on Africa

The media had begun to catalogue the toxic trail of the fuel, which provided the partnership with an opening. Spearheaded by De Jong and a team of 15 UNEP staffers, the alliance launched a multi-pronged campaign to get Africa off leaded petrol.

It helped governments update air pollution standards, many of which dated to colonial times. It published a study to debunk the urban legend that unleaded fuel would damage engines. It funded blood testing in places like Ghana and Kenya, which found dangerously elevated levels of lead in children’s blood.

Using what De Jong described as a “market approach”, UNEP staffers also lobbied petrol-importing countries to buy their fuel from the global market if local producers refused to churn out unleaded petrol.

Finally, partnership members, which included oil engineers, provided “boutique solutions” that allowed African refineries to switch over to unleaded fuel, said Rob Cox, the technical director of IPIECA, an oil and gas industry association specializing in environmental and social issues.

“Bit by bit, we broke down the barriers,” said Cox. “As we went through it, we suddenly became conscious that what we were doing was really special.”

Progress was fast. By 2006 all of Sub-Saharan Africa was lead free, an accomplishment the Washington Post called an unheralded success of international environmental diplomacy.

It also ushered in a new era of regional cooperation in places like East Africa, said Wanjiku Manyara, a founding member of the partnership and the Executive Director of the Petroleum Institute of East Africa.

The elimination of leaded petrol showed “Africa has the power to demand clean fuels from suppliers,” said Manyara. “It raised the bar ensuring that the dumping of poor-quality fuels cannot take place.”

In the trenches

While success in Sub-Saharan Africa was quick, the rest of the world would prove to be a slog.

It would take 15 years to persuade the remaining countries – which were clustered in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Asia – to abandon leaded fuel.

In some of those places, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles faced stiff resistance from the world’s last remaining maker of tetraethyl lead, Innospec, which was based in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In 2010, with the market for tetraethyl lead cratering, the company pleaded guilty to bribing Indonesian and Iraqi officials to secure sales, according to court records in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Still, the partnership continued to register victories, including in some of the world’s most isolated countries, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where UNEP staff met with officials eager to transition away from leaded fuel, De Jong said.

The end of the line

At partnership meetings, De Jong and colleague Jane Akumu would show a map of the world with leaded countries in red and unleaded ones in blue. As the years passed, the reds became few and far between.

“We could see from relatively early on that it wasn’t hopeless,” said Walsh. “There was a feeling of growing momentum, that ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’ In the meantime, we’re helping a million people here and a million people there.”

By 2020, Algeria was the last country on earth where drivers could buy leaded petrol. But in September last year, the government announced state-owned oil company Sonatrach would stop making the fuel and over the next 10 months Algeria decontaminated its storage facilities and distribution networks. In July, the government confirmed that service stations were no longer selling leaded petrol, 99 years and seven months after its invention.

“It was a proud moment for the sustainable mobility team and partners,” said UNEP’s Akumu, referring to the unit leading the campaign against leaded fuel. “We joked that we could now put in our retirement papers.”

There was no popping of champagne, though. “It was more like ‘Finally we’re done’,” said De Jong laughing.

In all, the partnership helped 86 countries wean themselves off leaded fuel.

“It was a sweet spot,” said Cox, a former oil industry engineer who is set to retire this fall. “The timing was right. The people were right. It is something that has effected me.”

The phasing out of leaded petrol has had a profound effect on the world. A study from California State University found that every year, it saves the lives of 1.2 million people, including 125,000 children who would otherwise die prematurely from cardiovascular, renal and neurological diseases.

Because lead exposure in childhood leads to behavioural problems, including violence in adulthood, the end of leaded fuel  also prevents some estimated 58 million crimes annually. As well, it saves the global economy $2.4 trillion in medical bills, lost wages, incarceration charges and other expenses every year.

Perhaps as importantly, it unlocked the widespread use of catalytic converters, filters installed on the exhaust systems of all petrol cars. These filters,  which can be destroyed by a single tankful of leaded fuel, scrub out a host of toxic chemicals, like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, making vehicles up to 90 per cent cleaner.

Hope for the future

While leaded petrol may be gone, air pollution still kills about 7 million people annually. Much of it comes from tailpipe emissions, including small particulates known as PM 2.5 that can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract, causing asthma and heart disease. Ultimately, De Jong says, the world will need to transition to zero emissions electric vehicles if it wants to conquer air pollution.

Still, observers say the end of leaded petrol is an encouraging step with humanity staring down the barrel of another environmental catastrophe: climate change.

“I’m certainly not a Pollyanna about climate change,” said Walsh. “But at least we can say ‘We solved (the leaded fuel) problem. Let’s do something similar. It gives me hope.”

UN Environment

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Energy efficiencies of EU waste incinerators are appallingly low

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A new study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) finds that efficiences of electricity generation of existing EU waste incineration facilities are appallingly low.

The study “Debunking Efficient Recovery: the Performance of EU Incineration Facilities” done by Equanimator found that typical efficiencies of generation of energy, especially when generating electricity only, are around the mid-20’s % in the best cases. This compares poorly with the figures of around 35% for coal-fired electricity generation, and 55% for combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants. 

The situation is somewhat better, comparatively, as regards heat generation, but even here, performance is no better than that of domestic gas-fired boilers. The situation worsens – the emissions effectively double, both for electricity and for gas – when emissions of non-fossil CO2 from waste incineration are considered.

Moreover, the study questions the rather arbitrary basis for distinguishing between disposal (D10) and recovery (R1) incineration. The energy efficiency threshold set under the R1 formula that was established to draw a distinction between waste disposal and recovery incinerators is one which is far too easily met. The R1 threshold could be achieved at efficiencies of as low as 16.5% net efficiency. The report thus recommends abandoning the meaningless distinction between D10 and R1 incineration. 

Janek Vähk, ZWE’s Climate, Energy, and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator, says: “The report provides evidence that burning waste for energy is a very inefficient process and as such the energy recovery aspect of it is often overemphasised by some stakeholders. Moreover, the ongoing decarbonisation makes it increasingly difficult to consider waste as a suitable source of energy, thus the need to recover energy from waste which led to the R1 formula is outdated.“

Dominic Hogg, Director of Equanimator: “The case for distinguishing between ‘recovery’ and ‘disposal’ on grounds of energy efficiency is always questionable. Incinerators are required, by law, to recover heat as far as is practicable, and any meaningful distinction would have excluded a significant proportion of operating facilities. Instead, according to EU data, some 98% of all municipal waste incinerated is dealt with at facilities that qualify as ‘recovery’. That suggests the ‘efficiency threshold’ has been designed to be too easily met. Given the diminishing benefits from incineration as energy systems decarbonise, it’s time to dispose of this distinction, and reclassify all incinerators as disposal facilities.”

The low generation efficiency of incineration leads to greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity are almost double of those associated with natural gas generation.

With the above in mind, ZWE calls on the European Commission in the upcoming revision of the Waste Framework Directive:

  • to remove the R1 formula in Annex II of the Waste Framework Directive so that municipal waste incineration is no longer able to be classified as ‘recovery’;
  • establish a mixed (residual) municipal waste generation target of 100 kgs per capita by 2035, to shift the focus from the disposal of waste to addressing the mixed waste generation in the first place.
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Offshore wind farms move ahead full sail with underwater help

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Off the coast of Portugal, a team of underwater robots is scanning the base of turbines on a wind farm and looking for signs of damage while aerial drones check the blades. The activity is part of a project to reduce inspection costs, keep wind turbines running for longer and, ultimately, reduce the price of electricity.

Wind power accounted for more than a third of the electricity generated from renewable sources in the EU in 2020 and offshore wind energy is expected to make a growing contribution over the coming years. Denmark became home of the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1991 and Europe is a global leader in the field.

Still, running wind farms in seas and oceans is expensive and adds to the overall cost of such clean power. Furthermore, Asian companies in the sector are gaining ground, increasing the European industry’s need to retain a competitive edge.

Lower costs

‘Up to 30% of all operation costs are related to inspection and maintenance,’ said João Marques of the INESC TEC research association in Portugal.

Much of this comes from sending maintenance crews out in boats to examine and repair offshore-wind infrastructure.

The EU-funded ATLANTIS project is exploring how robots can help on this front. The ultimate goal is to cut the cost of wind energy.

Underwater machines, vehicles that travel on the water surface and aerial drones are just some of the robots being tested. They use a combination of technologies – such as visual and non-visual imaging – and sonar to inspect the infrastructure. Infrared imaging, for instance, can identify cracks in turbine blades.

Research carried out by the project suggests that robotics-based technologies could increase the amount of time that maintenance vessels can work on wind farms by around 35%.

Higher safety

Expense is not the only consideration.

‘We also have some safety concerns,’ said Marques, who is a senior researcher on the ATLANTIS project.

Having people transfer from boat to turbine platforms, dive beneath the waves to inspect anchor points and scale turbine towers is dangerous.

It is safe for people to transfer from boats to turbine platforms only when waves are less than 1.5 metres high. By contrast, robotic inspection and maintenance systems can be deployed from boats in seas with waves of up to 2 metres.

In addition, easier and safer maintenance will increase the amount of time that wind farms can be fully operational. In winter, it is often impossible to carry out offshore inspection and maintenance, which must wait for better weather in spring or summer.

‘If you have a problem on a wind farm or on a particular turbine in a month where you cannot access it, it needs to be stopped until someone can reach it,’ said Marques.

Being able to work in higher waves means that causes of wind-farm shutdowns can be tackled more quickly.

First of its kind

The project’s test site is based on a real offshore wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean, 20 kilometres from the northern Portuguese city of Viana do Castelo. It is the first of its kind in Europe.

‘We need somewhere to actually test these things – somewhere where people can actually develop their own robotics,’ Marques said.

In addition to its own robotic technologies, ATLANTIS aims to help other research teams and companies develop their own such systems.

European researchers and businesses active in this cutting-edge sector should be able to book time to use the facilities starting early this year.

Damage prevention

Another way to cut maintenance costs is reducing damage and the need for repairs in the first place. The recently concluded EU-funded FarmConners project sought to do just that through the widespread use of a technology called wind farm control, or WFC.

When hit by wind, a turbine extracts energy from the air flow. As a result, the flow behind the turbine has a reduced energy, a phenomenon known as shadowing. Because of this uneven distribution of energetic load on blades and towers, some turbines get damaged more than others.

WFC aims to balance out the distribution of wind energy throughout the farm, according to project co-coordinator Tuhfe Göçmen of the Technical University of Denmark.

There are several ways to mitigate the effects of shadowing. One is to misalign turbines. Instead of facing straight into the wind, a turbine can be turned slightly so that the shadow effect is steered away from turbines behind.

The pitch and the rotational speed of the turbine’s three blades can also be changed. While this cuts the amount of energy the turbine produces, it leaves more for the turbines behind to harvest.


As well as reducing wear and tear and maintenance costs, WFC can make wind farms more productive and help them generate power in a way that is easier for the electricity grid to handle.

Renewable energy including wind power is often produced in peaks and troughs. Sometimes the peaks, or surges in power, can overload the electricity grid.

With the turbines working together, power production can be levelled out to provide more consistent and stable input to the grid, according to Göçmen.

‘If we control turbines collectively, it is simply more efficient,’ he said.

Research has shown that such wind-farm control could increase the power output of all wind farms in the EU by 1%.

That’s equivalent to twice the output of a 400 megawatt wind farm, which would cost around €1.2 billon to build, according to Gregor Giebel, a FarmConners co-coordinator also at the Technical University of Denmark.

This technology is also simple to implement as most wind turbines can be controlled and adjusted to act in the ways needed by WFC. The wind farms need simply to update their control software.

There is a lot of commercial interest in WFC technology, making it a promising way for Europe to expand its use of wind energy, according to Göçmen,

It is ‘low-cost and potentially high-gain,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Green Energy and Global Integration Will Sustain Positive Economic Outlook

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Recent economic signals have given experts reasons for hope, if not complacency about the outlook for 2023. Signs of declining inflation, resilient consumer spending and strong labour markets, among others, suggest that growth could be rebounding in the short term.

“My message is that it is less bad than we feared a couple of months ago, but that doesn’t quite get to us to being good,” said Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

The threat of rising inflation seems to have abated in many parts of the world, thanks in part to interest rate increases from some central banks. While many decision-makers have expressed determination to sustain rates, there is a risk that recent improvements could cause leaders to ease rates.

“The greatest tragedy in this moment would be if central banks were to lurch away from a focus on assuring price stability prematurely and we were to have to fight this battle twice,” said Lawrence H. Summers, Professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

A major economic priority worldwide for 2023 involves accelerating decarbonization. Recent legislation in the United States to support green energy will provide billions of dollars in funding but has provoked concerns of launching a subsidy war between Europe and the US over decarbonization technology. On the one hand, competition to promote green energy could accelerate progress for the benefit of all. On the other hand, the risks that nations will block technological developments and turn inward would deter global progress.

“I hope very much that this subsidy race we are hearing about is not going to be a race for the bottom,” said Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank. A negative repercussion of Europe-US competition would be overlooking the imperative to finance the green energy transformation in the developing world, which is the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.

Competition over green energy could amplify other risks of fragmentation in global trade as many nations prioritize national security over global integration. “Over the last three years, we have entered a new era of globalization. We have shifted from market-driven globalization to politically powered globalization,” said Bruno Le Maire, France’s Minister of Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty.

Fragmentation poses numerous risks to the world economy, such as higher costs associated with reorganizing supply chains. For example, Europe and the US have focused recently on increasing domestic production of silicon chips. There is a risk that such turning inward will impede global cooperation on trade and climate goals.

The easing of pandemic restrictions in China raises questions for the 2023 economic outlook. One potential concern involves rising energy costs worldwide, as Chinese consumption rises.

In Japan, inflation remains a concern, but the nation has seen recent improvements in job creation. “We made that change I should say mainly due to increased labour participation of women,” said Kuroda Haruhiko, Governor of the Bank of Japan.

In terms of the most pressing risks for 2023, economic experts focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine not only as a geopolitical and humanitarian crisis but also as a concern for economies around the world. Likewise, experts expressed uncertainty about whether inflation would continue a downward trajectory and about the continued threat of mutations of COVID-19. Despite recent signs of improvement, “relief must not become complacency,” Summers noted.

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