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How will better petrol help the environment?

There have been two major climate stories in the news this past week, both linked to petrol. We get through a lot of petrol – in the UK, we use around 1.19 million barrels each day – and as we think about protecting the climate, limiting or improving our use and supply of the fuel is an important step. These two announcements – the end of leaded petrol and the introduction of E10 – point the way forward for greener fuel.

On Tuesday 31 August, it was announced by the UN that leaded petrol has been completely eradicated from the world. Lead was added to petrol in the early 1920s in order to improve engine performance, but we’ve known that it was dangerous as well as highly polluting as early as 1924 – five workers were killed, and dozens more hospitalised, after suffering convulsions at a refinery run by Standard Oil. Lead contaminates the air, soil and water, and has been linked to heart disease, cancer and stroke, and was added to all petrol globally until the 1970s.

By the 1980s, many high-income countries had banned leaded petrol, but in the early 2000s, there were still 86 nations using leaded petrol. In 2016, North Korea and Afghanistan stopped selling leaded petrol and, in July this year, Algeria finally ran out of the fuel – the last country to do so. The UN celebrated the news, hailing the end of a substance that was “catastrophic for the environment and public health”, while Greenpeace called it “the end of one toxic era”. Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN’s environmental body Unep, said “leaded fuel illustrates in a nutshell the kind of mistakes humanity has been making at every level of our societies”, but she said this news demonstrated that “humanity can learn from and fix mistakes that we’ve made”.

These two announcements – the end of leaded petrol and the introduction of E10 – point the way forward for greener fuel

On the same day, the UK government announced that a more eco-friendly petrol, E10, is being introduced at stations, and that it will soon become the standard grade. In the UK, we blend ethanol with regular unleaded petrol – this was previously a mixture of 5% ethanol, 95% petrol, but that percentage will now be upped to 10%, hence E10. This would bring the UK in line with countries such as France and Germany. According to the government, this is a move to reduce CO2 emissions – by doubling the proportion of the renewable ethanol, they argue that a 750,000-tonne reduction in CO2 could be achieved, which would be the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road. Ethanol is seen as a carbon-neutral fuel, since the plants absorb CO2 from the air while they are growing, offsetting the emissions when the fuel is burnt.

There are, however, some issues with the rollout. Every petrol vehicle built after 2011 should be compatible with E10, but roughly 600,000 of cars currently on the roads shouldn’t use it, and it will cause issues to these vehicles in the long term. It appears that these drivers are now being hit in the pocket, as E5 petrol is roughly 15p a litre more expensive than E10. E10 fuel may damage the seals, plastics and metals in an older car as a result of ethanol’s corrosive properties, and ethanol is also a hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from the atmosphere, leading to condensation in fuel tanks if the car remains unused for long periods of time.

By improving the standard of our fuel, our journeys will be considerably greener moving forward

It may be less efficient, although this is not guaranteed, and there have been some questions raised about the percentage of ethanol. Some people have moral objections to the use of ethanol, coming from food crops, to produce fuels, saying it could cause shortages, while environmental campaigners say there should be even more of it in petrol if it is genuinely good for the planet. Questions will likely follow about the source of ethanol in petrol, and suppliers may potentially have to provide this information in the same way that supermarkets do for food.

These announcements may not appear to be the most exciting ones in the world, but they are important steps forward – as we try to mitigate human impact on the planet, every step, no matter how small, counts. By improving the standard of our fuel, our journeys will be considerably greener moving forward.

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