Kenya leads way to greener fuel in East Africa

Posted: 20 February 2011

In a move that is set to improve air quality and reduce vehicle emissions across East Africa, Kenya has officially launched its transition to low-sulphur diesel.

Containing only 5 per cent of the amount of sulphur present in Kenya's previous diesel supply, the cleaner fuel is already available  in limited stations and will soon be present in pumps across the country.

Cleaner diesel launch Kenya
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner (L) and Michelle DePass (R), Assistant Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency fuel a car during the launch.

This new milestone for cleaner fuel in East Africa is part of a global initiative by the  Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) to promote cleaner and more efficient fuels and vehicles in developing countries. The Partnership is co-ordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and is supported by the United States, Holland, Canada and other partners,. It campaigns to reduce sulphur in vehicle fuels, eliminate leaded gasoline and adopt cleaner vehicle standards and technologies.

Sulphur levels in diesel and petrol differ dramatically across the globe. While many developed countries have already set standards for sulphur levels in diesel as low as 10 parts per million (ppm), sulphur levels in some developing countries can be as high as 10,000 ppm.

Kenya's new standard of 500ppm became the lowest in East Africa when imports started in October 2010. Tanzania soon followed suit and began introducing 500ppm diesel last month. Kenya's low-sulphur standard will also have a significant impact in countries to which it exports diesel, such as Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 Health and financial gains

UNEP says the Partnership - launched at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development - is  bringing  enormous benefits in terms of reduced air pollution and  perhaps to the wider environment.

"Striking economic benefits are emerging too" says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.  The agency's  Green Economy report, launched this week, estimates that reducing the sulphur content of transportation fuels in Sub Saharan Africa alone with the current fleet of vehicles could save up to nearly US$1 billion a year in health and related costs.

Low-sulphur fuels reduce the levels of air pollutants emitted by vehicles - such as sulphur oxides, soot and smoke particles - which, among other health risks, can trigger respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and pose an increased risk of lung cancer. The World Health Organisation estimates that almost 800,000 people die prematurely each year due to urban air pollution - with the majority of deaths occurring in developing countries.

Furthermore, reducing sulphur levels in diesel allows the use of emission-reducing technologies in vehicles, such as high-pressure injection, computer controls and exhaust gas recirculation. These technologies cannot function if a vehicle uses high-sulphur diesel. Lower sulphur levels in fuel also reduce corrosion in car cylinders and exhausts, leading to longer engine life and less frequent repairs or rebuilds.

There are significant financial benefits for Africa in a switch to low-sulphur diesel. A World Bank study shows that, when combined with cleaner vehicles, adoption of low-sulphur fuel would result in annual savings in health costs of US$6 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2010 and 2020, total savings are projected to be US$43 billion.

Towards a global  standard

A special effort is being made in Kenya  to introduce  low-sulphur diesel first in the  major towns, where fuel consumption is generally high. Nairobi, for example, is home to 65 per cent of Kenya's total fuel consumption.

"Kenya is committed to switching to cleaner, low-sulphur fuels", said Magerer Lang'at, Assistant Minister for Petroleum Energy. "We are considering upgrading the country's oil refinery, which will allow us to hit the 50 ppm target, a milestone not only for Kenya but for East Africa. This project is crucial to improving the health of our people and the health of the planet", added Mr. Lang'at.

Projections show that that worldwide demand for fuels is set to double by 2050. The vast majority of this increased demand will be from developing countries, with knock-on results of higher emissions from vehicles and a detrimental impact on urban air quality. The world's urban population now exceeds its rural population - resulting in greater human exposure to the health risks of high-sulphur or leaded fuels and poor air quality.

Through a global network of governments, fuel companies and other organisations, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles is achieving significant progress in reducing sulphur levels in fuels. Countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia are committing to - or already selling - standards of 50ppm or less in major cities. This means that in Indonesia, for example, the latest diesel grade contains only 2.5per cent of the amount of sulphur present in the country's supply in 2005. Today, 99 countries have adopted plans to reduce sulphur levels in diesel to 50 ppm.

End of the road for lead

As well as reducing sulphur levels in fuel, one of the key aims of the Partnership for Cleans Fuels and Vehicles is the global elimination of leaded petrol. The presence of lead in vehicle emissions has a damaging effect on human health and the environment. Studies have shown that inhalation of lead can lead to behavioural problems and poor mental health in children. Heart disease, high blood pressure and organ damage have also been linked to lead exposure.

When the partnership was formed in 2002, some 82 countries still used leaded petrol. Today, only six countries remain - all of which have ongoing phase-out programmes in co-operation with PCFV. A 2010 study commissioned by UNEP shows that global phase-out of leaded petrol would result in health benefits equivalent to trillions of dollars a year or some 4 per cent of global GDP. In Africa, the health savings are estimated at US$92 billion per year.

Just like low-sulphur fuel, unleaded petrol allows the use of modern vehicle technologies, such as advanced catalytic converters, which reduces emissions as well as protecting vehicles against damage to engines, exhausts and other parts.   

With the global vehicle fleet expected to rise from 2 billion to 3 billion by 2050, cleaner fuels must go hand-in-hand with cleaner cars, motorcycles and buses iwith improved emission standards and fuel economy.

To help achieve this,  UNEP is a partner in the ‘50 by 50' campaign run by the Global Fuel Economy Initiative. Working with governments, the fuel industry and vehicle manufacturers, the campaign aims for a global target of a 50 per cent improvement in fuel economy by 2050.

Transport is one of the key industries highlighted in UNEP's forthcoming Green Economy report. The report shows that improving energy efficiency across all transport modes and shifting from private transport to public or non-motorised transport would not only reduce harmful emissions and improve air quality, but increase employment by around 10 percent above a ‘business as usual' model.