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



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 News

Surging electricity demand is putting power systems under strain around the world



Global electricity demand surged in 2021, creating strains in major markets, pushing prices to unprecedented levels and driving the power sector’s emissions to a record high. Electricity is central to modern life and clean electricity is pivotal to energy transitions, but in the absence of faster structural change in the sector, rising demand over the next three years could result in additional market volatility and continued high emissions, according an IEA report released today.

Driven by the rapid economic rebound, and more extreme weather conditions than in 2020, including a colder than average winter, last year’s 6% rise in global electricity demand was the largest in percentage terms since 2010 when the world was recovering from the global financial crisis. In absolute terms, last year’s increase of over 1 500 terawatt-hours was the largest ever, according to the January 2022 edition of the IEA’s semi-annual Electricity Market Report.

The steep increase in demand outstripped the ability of sources of electricity supply to keep pace in some major markets, with shortages of natural gas and coal leading to volatile prices, demand destruction and negative effects on power generators, retailers and end users, notably in China, Europe and India. Around half of last year’s global growth in electricity demand took place in China, where demand grew by an estimated 10%. China and India suffered from power cuts at certain points in the second half of the year because of coal shortages.

“Sharp spikes in electricity prices in recent times have been causing hardship for many households and businesses around the world and risk becoming a driver of social and political tensions,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Policy makers should be taking action now to soften the impacts on the most vulnerable and to address the underlying causes. Higher investment in low-carbon energy technologies including renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear power – alongside an expansion of robust and smart electricity grids – can help us get out of today’s difficulties.”

The IEA’s price index for major wholesale electricity markets almost doubled compared with 2020 and was up 64% from the 2016-2020 average. In Europe, average wholesale electricity prices in the fourth quarter of 2021 were more than four times their 2015-2020 average.  Besides Europe, there were also sharp price increases in Japan and India, while they were more moderate in the United States where gas supplies were less perturbed.

Electricity produced from renewable sources grew by 6% in 2021, but it was not enough to keep up with galloping demand. Coal-fired generation grew by 9%, serving more than half of the increase in demand and reaching a new all-time peak as high natural gas prices led to gas-to-coal switching. Gas-fired generation grew by 2%, while nuclear increased by 3.5%, almost reaching its 2019 levels. In total, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power generation rose by 7%, also reaching a record high, after having declined the two previous years.

“Emissions from electricity need to decline by 55% by 2030 to meet our Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, but in the absence of major policy action from governments, those emissions are set to remain around the same level for the next three years,” said Dr Birol. “Not only does this highlight how far off track we currently are from a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050, but it also underscores the massive changes needed for the electricity sector to fulfil its critical role in decarbonising the broader energy system.”

For 2022-2024, the report anticipates electricity demand growing 2.7% a year on average, although the Covid-19 pandemic and high energy prices bring some uncertainty to this outlook. Renewables are set to grow by 8% per year on average, serving more than 90% of net demand growth during this period. We expect nuclear-based generation to grow by 1% annually during the same period.

As a consequence of slowing electricity demand growth and significant renewables additions, fossil fuel-based generation is expected to stagnate in the coming years, with coal-fired generation falling slightly as phase-outs and declining competitiveness in the United States and Europe are balanced by growth in markets like China and India. Gas-fired generation is seen growing by around 1% a year.

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Canada’s bold policies can underpin a successful energy transition



Canada has embarked on an ambitious transformation of its energy system, and clear policy signals will be important to expand energy sector investments in clean and sustainable energy sources, according to a policy review by the International Energy Agency.

Since the IEA’s last in-depth review in 2015, Canada has made a series of international and domestic climate change commitments, notably setting a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2030 and a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

To support those climate and energy targets, governments in Canada have in recent years worked on a number of policy measures, including an ambitious carbon-pricing system, a clean fuels standard, a commitment to phase out unabated coal-fired electricity by 2030, nuclear plant extensions, methane regulations in the oil and gas sector, energy efficiency programmes and measures to decarbonise the transport sector.

“Canada has shown impressive leadership, both at home and abroad, on clean and equitable energy transitions,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, who is launching the report today with Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources. “Canada’s wealth of clean electricity and its innovative spirit can help drive a secure and affordable transformation of its energy system and help realise its ambitious goals. Equally important, Canada’s efforts to reduce emissions – of both carbon dioxide and methane – from its oil and gas production can help ensure its continued place as a reliable supplier of energy to the world.”

Canada’s profile as a major producer, consumer and exporter of energy presents both challenges and opportunities for reaching the country’s enhanced targets. Energy makes up 10% of gross domestic product and is a major source of capital investment, export revenue and jobs. Moreover, Canada’s highly decentralised system of government means that close coordination between federal, provincial and territorial governments is essential for a successful energy transition.

“This report acknowledges Canada’s ambitious efforts and historic investments to develop pathways to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and ensure a transition that aligns with our shared objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “ said Minister Wilkinson. “These are pathways that make the most sense for our people, our economy and our country and will also yield technology, products and know-how that can be exported and applied around the world.”                              

The IEA finds that emissions intensity from Canada’s oil and gas production has declined in recent years, but the sector remains a major source of greenhouse gases, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s GHG emissions. Along with strong action to curb methane emissions, improving the rate of energy technology innovation will be essential for the deep decarbonisation that is needed in oil and gas production, as well as in the transport and industry sectors. Canada is actively advancing innovation in a number of key fields, including carbon capture, utilisation and storage; clean hydrogen; and small modular nuclear reactors, with a view to serving as a supplier of energy and climate solutions to the world. The IEA notes that further federal support for research, development and demonstration would help accelerate progress towards these goals.

The IEA is also recommending that Canada’s federal government promote a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy in consultation with provinces and territories that sets clear targets for energy efficiency in the buildings, industry and transport sectors

The IEA report highlights that Canada’s electricity supply is among the cleanest in the world, with over 80% of supply coming from non-emitting sources, thanks to the dominance of hydro and the important role of nuclear. To further support the expansion of clean power and electrification, the report encourages increased interconnections among provinces and territories to ensure balanced decarbonisation progress across the country.

The IEA commends Canada on its efforts to advance a people-centred approach to its clean energy transition, including initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in clean energy sectors; programmes to increase access to clean energy in northern, remote and Indigenous communities; and actions to enable just transitions for coal workers and their communities.

“Canada has laid out a comprehensive set of policy measures and investments across sectors to meet its climate targets, including a strong clean energy component to its Covid-19 economic recovery efforts,” said Dr Birol. “I hope this report will help Canada navigate its path toward economy-wide emissions reductions and a net zero future.” 

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Iran to add 10GW to renewable energy capacity



Iranian Energy Ministry and some of the country’s private contractors signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) on Sunday for cooperation in the construction of renewable power plants to generate 10,000 megawatts (10 gigawatts) of electricity across the country.

The signing ceremony was attended by senior energy officials including Energy Minister Ali-Akbar Mehrabian and Head of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Organization (SATBA) Mahmoud Kamani, IRIB reported.

The MOUs were signed following the Energy Ministry’s public call for the contribution of private companies in a project for developing renewable power plants in the country.

According to SATBA, after the ministry’s public call, so far 153 requests for the generation of 90,000 megawatts (MW) have been submitted to the ministry by private companies.

Speaking in the signing ceremony, Energy Minister Ali-Akbar Mehrabian said: “When the private sector invests in this industry [the renewables], the government is obliged to return the equivalent of the investment plus its interests to the investor.”

Mehrabian noted that the government has allocated over 30 trillion rials (about $101 million) for the development of renewables in the budget bill for the next Iranian calendar year (begins on March 21), saying that it is an unprecedented budget in this area.

Further in the ceremony, SATBA Head Kamani mentioned some of the Energy Ministry’s plans for the development of the country’s renewable energy industry, saying: “Export of renewable energy is a goal that has been targeted by the government.”

“Constructing renewable power plants for the cryptocurrency miners is also being seriously considered,” he added.

Back in December 2021, Kamani had announced plans to create 10,000 MW capacity of new renewable power plants across the country within the next four years.

He had put the current capacity of the country’s renewable power plants at 905 MW, saying that such power plants account only for one percent of the country’s total power generation capacity.

“Currently, 30 percent of the world’s electricity needs are provided by renewable energy sources, and some countries have even declared 2030 as the final year of using fossil fuels,” he said.

“We are far behind the global standards in the development of renewable energy,” he regretted.

Referring to another program for the development of renewable energies in the domestic sector, Kamani noted that to encourage households for constructing such power plants the Energy Ministry has announced that it will buy their surplus generated electricity at a guaranteed price.

He further pointed to the indigenization of the knowledge for the construction of the equipment used in renewable power plants as another priority of the Energy Ministry and SATBA, saying: “Currently, the construction of solar panels and wind power plants is completely indigenized, and we must strengthen our producers to finally become able to build all the required equipment from start to finish, in this regard, of course, some enterprises have announced their readiness.”

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