It's Official. Leaded Gas Use Has Been Eradicated Worldwide

But the fight for a better climate is far from over.
Brad Bergan
A smoky truck in a heavy traffic jam.victoass88 / iStock

Climate-conscious policies can save the world.

Consider leaded petrol, which was finally eradicated from the planet in a world-historical milestone that will spare 1.2 million people from premature death, in addition to saving $2.4 trillion every year, according to a Monday statement from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

But without substantially cutting industrial and international fossil fuel emissions, this landmark achievement may prove to be nothing but a brief respite from climate calamity.

Eradicating leaded fuel will 'prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths' annually

This comes nearly a century after doctors initially warned the world of the toxic effects of leaded petrol, with Algeria becoming the final country to cease using the the dangerous fuel, after exhausting its store last month, according to the UNEP, which praised this development in the global struggle to foster cleaner environments and air. "The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment," said the Nairobi-based UNEP's Executive Director Inger Andersen, in another press release. Just two decades ago, more than 100 countries continued to employ leaded petrol despite resounding scientific consensus on the gas' link to soil and air pollution, poor health, and premature deaths.

Health concerns were first raised in 1924, when dozens of workers were placed into hospital care, five of which were declared dead after experiencing convulsions at a Standard Oil refinery in the U.S. This was the same refinery dubbed the "looney gas building" by employees. Despite this clear and present danger, nearly all gasoline sold globally contained lead until the 1970s. By the time UNEP launched its campaign to end leaded gas use in 2002, several major economic nations had already cut the use of the fuel to negligible levels, including India, China, and the United States. But low-income regions struggled to catch up, continuing to endanger local populations and environments in the 21st century.

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It wasn't until 2016 that Myanmar, Afghanistan, and North Korea ceased their use of leaded petrol, with only a few countries still offering the fuel to fossil fuel vehicles. Algeria was the last to follow suit, shortly after Yemen and Iraq's halt to the polluting fuel. And, according to the UNEP's statement, the eradication of leaded petrol will "prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths per year, increase IQ points among children, save $2.44 trillion for the global economy, and decrease crime rates." As benefits of climate-conscious policy go, this is pretty great (to put it very mildly).

Climate calamity will continue until we eradicate excess fossil fuels

The UNEP calculated its dollar amount of savings from a 2010 study executed by scientists working at California State University, in Northridge. Primary factors in the study included lower medical costs, the pros of a healthier global economy, and a drop in criminal activity. Believe it or not, exposure to leaded fuel was correlated with higher crime rates. While the eradication of leaded fuel is a major landmark achievement for every nation on Earth, the agency also warned that fossil fuel use must still be substantially reduced if we can venture to hope for a brighter future than the one suggested in recent and forthcoming climate change disasters.

Even Greenpeace celebrated the news, calling it "a celebration of the end of one toxic era," according to the press release. "It clearly shows that if we can phase out one of the most dangerous polluting fuels in the 20th century, we can absolutely phase out all fossil fuels," said Greenpeace Africa's Climate and Energy Campaigner Thandile Chinyavanhu. "Africa's governments must give no more excuses for the fossil fuel industry."

And on this point, they couldn't be more correct. Earlier in August, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a worrying report, warning that the world's average temperature would rise 2.7°F (1.5°C)  by 2030 compared to pre-industrial times, which means we're a full decade closer to climate catastrophe than scientists previously thought. But with unleaded gas finally eradicated after a century of warning, we can still hope that the leaders of the world, both in nations and corporations, will shoulder the responsibility of cutting all carbon-heavy pollutants from global industries. The people alone simply don't have the power to save the world without meaningful changes in policy and industrial production.

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