Sub-Saharan Africa Celebrates Leaded Petrol Phase-Out

By Henry Neondo

A promise made three years ago to rid Sub-Saharan Africa of leaded petrol has been met.

Today the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced that as of 1 January 2006 the region’s vehicle fuels will be lead-free.

The phase-out, promised at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, means a healthier world for millions of people across the region.

Lead, a notorious heavy metal, is linked with a wide range of ailments and ill health including damage to the brains of babies and young children.

It has been phased out in many parts of the world already including North America and Europe. Until a few years ago pretty much all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were using leaded petrol.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: “This is a real environmental and health achievement and I pay tribute to all those governments like, companies and others such as the World Bank who kept this promise made at WSSD”.

“We also need to work to tackle other pollutants, promote alternative fuels such as bio-fuels and hydrogen alongside more efficient and less polluting vehicles and transportation networks and systems that are environment and people friendly. Not just in developed countries but for everyone across the globe,” he added.

Leaded Petrol

The Partnership or PCFV was formed at WSSD in 2002 as a so called Type II partnership with its first aim of phasing out leaded petrol in sub-Saharan Africa.

It was established to take forward the Dakar Declaration of 2001 where sub-Saharan African countries agreed to phase out leaded petrol.

In 2002, only one country of the forty-nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa-- Sudan—was fully unleaded.

With South Africa to go unleaded on 1 January 2006, all of sub-Saharan Africa will have switched.

In early 2006 the Partnership will launch a global leaded gasoline phase-out for the rest of the developing world and economies in transition with the goal of eliminating leaded petrol world-wide by 2008.

The campaign will be backed up by workshops and awareness campaigns aimed initially at the Middle East, the handful of North African countries remaining and West Asia.

Currently well over 30 countries globally are still using leaded petrol.

Some of the biggest challenges are faced in the small and far flung islands of the Pacific including Micronesia.

Other countries so far without plans to phase-out lead include Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, Cambodia, Cuba, Iraq, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Partnership is now focusing its attention on the very high levels of sulphur found in fuels in developing countries and economies in transition.


Unlike lead, which was once required as an additive in engine fuels as an ‘anti knocking’ agent, sulphur is naturally occurring in petroleum.

In Europe sulphur levels in diesel vehicle fuels are typically 10 to 50 parts per million. In many developing countries this can be at levels up to a 1,000 times higher.

For example most African countries are currently at 5,000 parts per million with some countries, in Africa and elsewhere, having even higher sulphur content.

These include the Sudan with a sulphur content in diesel of 11,000 parts per million; Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia with sulphur content in diesel at 10,000 parts per million and Zambia with an estimated 7,000 parts per million.

Some countries in Latin America, such as Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Honduras have sulphur contents currently at 5,000 parts per million.

The Partnership agreed at a meeting in Nairobi in early December to work towards a long term target of 50 parts per million for sulphur in diesel and petrol vehicle fuels. Timetables to meet the target are to be set nationally and regionally.

Sulphur causes emissions of fine particles or flecks of soot which have been linked to health problems including heart attacks in the elderly and vulnerable groups. It can also damage trees and other biological systems as a result of the formation of sulphuric acid.

“It is cause for extreme concern. So I am delighted that the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) is now looking at this issue too so we can end the bipolar world in which developed countries have cleaner and healthier sulphur levels than developing countries,” said Mr Toepfer.

The introduction of lead-free petrol and diesel with reduced sulphur content also allows for the introduction of emission control technologies on vehicles including catalytic converters and particle traps.

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