Five west African countries have announced measures to end the practice of European oil companies and traders exporting “African quality” diesel – highly polluting fuels that could never be sold in Europe.
Swiss commodity traders were accused in a report published in September by Swiss NGO Public Eye of exporting fuels to west Africa with sulphur levels that are sometimes hundreds of times higher than European levels.
The report accused oil companies of “regulatory arbitrage”, allowing traders and companies to exploit weak standards to export cheap, dirty fuels in a process that Public Eye said was maximising profits at the expense of African’s health. High-sulphur fuels are major contributors to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma.
Last week Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Ivory Coast agreed to ban imports of high-sulphur diesel fuels as part of an initiative organised by the UN Environment Programme. Permitted levels of sulphur in imported diesel will fall from as high as 3,000 parts per million (ppm) in some of the countries to 50 ppm. In Europe the maximum has been 10 ppm since 2009.
There is nothing illegal about the practice exposed by Public Eye’s report, and the blending of fuels to achieve particular specifications before export is standard industry practice. Companies identified in the report said they comply with the fuel standards imposed by the governments they ship to, and support efforts, including those by the African Refiners Association, to improve fuel standards.
Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, said: “West Africa is sending a strong message that it is no longer accepting dirty fuels from Europe. Their decision to set strict new standards for cleaner, safer fuels and advanced vehicle emission standards shows they are placing the health of their people first.”
He said the decision set an example for others to follow, adding: “Air pollution is killing millions of people every year, and we need to ensure that all countries urgently introduce cleaner fuels and vehicles to help reduce the shocking statistics.”
Nigeria’s environment minister, Amina Mohammed, said the decision would lead to major improvements in air quality. “For 20 years Nigeria has not been able to address the vehicle pollution crisis due to the poor fuels we have been importing. Today we are taking a huge leap forward… this will result in major air quality benefits in our cities and will allow us to set modern vehicle standards.”
The five countries also agreed to upgrade their national refineries to bring locally produced diesel up to the same quality by 2020.
Oliver Classen, spokesman for Public Eye, said the decision to raise fuel standards following the report and campaign was encouraging. “The improvement of air quality in African cities and the protection of people’s health is possible. It needs neither rocket science, countless measures, or lengthy negotiations. But governments need to act and the time to act is now,” he said.
He called on the government of Switzerland, where most of the major commodity trading companies are headquartered, to impose “mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence standards”, adding: “It should cover the entire supply chain and including potentially damaging products.”
Many of the fuel exports revealed by Public Eye are shipped from Dutch ports, and the decision was praised by the Dutch foreign trade and development cooperation minister, Lilianne Ploumen.
“The recent report from the NGO Public Eye made abundantly clear that coordinated action is needed to stop the practice of exporting dirty fuels to west Africa,” said Ploumen. “I am very pleased west African governments quickly decided to introduce standards that will help accessing European standard quality fuels. Their people deserve cleaner air, better health and a cleaner environment.”