The future is safer now that leaded petrol is gone

The substance was responsible for pollution and terrible health consequences

The UN is celebrating the end of leaded petrol, saying it will have huge environmental and health benefits. AFP
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The great and complex task of securing a sustainable future for humanity is at the heart of today's climate movement. It makes sense, therefore, that we are dedicating so much energy to inventing radical new technologies and fulfilling tough, ambitious targets.

But in the clamour to innovate, more quotidian developments, many of which have immediate benefits for our planet, might not always get the publicity they deserve.

One to take note of is the end of leaded petrol. The world recently passed a milestone in the history of modern energy when Algeria, the last remaining country to use leaded petrol, exhausted its supply. The UN celebrated the news, hailing it as the end of a substance that was "catastrophic for the environment and public health".

Lead, an additive that was used in most fuel sold in the 20th century, is hugely polluting. Its particles are also extremely toxic. As early as 1922, scientists were warning of its lethal effects. By 1974, leaded fuel was being phased out in the US.

Algeria has stopped using leaded fuel, making the dangerous energy source history. AP

The UN estimates that its demise will help avoid more than a million premature deaths per year. Breathing in leaded fuel is also known to have a number of serious mental health effects, including increased rates of violent behaviour and mood disorders and a lowering of IQ development in children.

The benefits of saying goodbye to leaded fuel will be felt disproportionately in the Middle East. Over the past few years, areas of the Mena region were bearing the brunt of this public health problem, with Iraq, Yemen and finally Algeria being the last to cease using the substance.

The basis for this week's good news was was not, therefore, the cutting-edge development of a new sustainable fuel source, nor was it the moment we stopped using petrol altogether. Rather, it was the result of simply tweaking ingredients. This might seem a humbler process, but it significantly advanced our mission to protect the planet, saving millions in the process.

Smaller adjustments such as these are an important part of getting climate change under control. Yesterday in Britain, 8,000 petrol stations started selling greener "E10" petrol, which the government claims will reduce CO2 emissions as the country waits for the wider transition to electric vehicles. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi's Department of Energy has announced that it will start issuing clean energy certificates as part of a strategy to gradually and sustainably decarbonise the energy sector.

The date for Cop26, a meeting of world leaders in Glasgow, is fast approaching. The main focus of the conference will be renewing commitments made in the legally binding Paris Agreement in 2015, which pledged to reach the ultimate goal of a zero-carbon future by 2050.

It is not contradictory to pursue this grand ambition, while at the same time acknowledging carbon as a reality for the next few decades. As this week's news has shown, the positive, smarter adjustments we can make today in our still imperfect world remain an important part of the solution.

Published: September 02, 2021, 3:00 AM