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The UN Environment Program (UNEP) announced Monday that the global use of leaded gasoline has finally ended after Algerian service stations phased the fuel out last month. Leaded gasoline has been used since 1922, and by 1970 was nearly ubiquitous around the world, but the consequences of its use have been devastating for human health. “The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said the UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen.
Why This Matters: Atmospheric greenhouse gasses are at an all-time high, and almost 25% of GHG emissions come from the transport sector. Slashing these emissions will be crucial to meeting the goals of the Paris agreement. While phasing out leaded gasoline has offered some hope that the world is ready to make a significant shift toward electric vehicles, other damaging fuel sources have fallen in line to take leaded gasoline’s place. In many places, the absence of leaded gas has led to a greater reliance on diesel. Still, there is no doubt that the world now has an excellent opportunity to revolutionize and decarbonize our transportation economy.
Emissions from leaded gasoline were found to contribute to heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancers, and neurological damage in children. The U.S. began phasing out leaded gas in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2002 that there was a significant global push to eliminate its use. According to UNEP, banning leaded gasoline has saved more than 1.2 million lives each year, improved intelligence levels among children, and saved $2.45 trillion each year for the global economy.
Still, fuel experts say we’re not done yet. In many regions, diesel fuel has filled the space that leaded gasoline once held. “Diesel has negative effects on public health — absolutely anything that causes cancer and causes respiratory irritation and asthma, which diesel exhaust does, is bad for public health,” said Phillip Landrigan, who worked on research that led to the U.S. ban on leaded gasoline. “We really need to get off gasoline. We really need to get off diesel, to the extent possible, as rapidly as we can.”
President Biden has set a national target to ensure that electric vehicles represent half of all U.S. auto sales by 2030. Still, recent reports show that the world failed to take advantage of a significant dip in emissions provided by worldwide pandemic lockdowns in 2020. Now, the world is racing against an even tighter climate deadline than ever before and will have to strengthen transportation emission commitments at the COP26 climate conference this November.
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