“Africa is experiencing some of the worst air pollution in the world and air quality has deteriorating rapidly over the past 50 years.” That’s how a recent article published in Nature kicks off.
Air pollution is a major silent killer in Africa, and it’s getting worse year after year. Africa’s economic growth is largely driven by sprawling cities, and pollution in these cities is skyrocketing. With rising populations, rapid urbanization, and industrialization, the continent’s air quality is deteriorating at an alarming rate.
The situation is further exacerbated by inadequate funding and attention: less than 0.01% of global air pollution funding is currently allocated to Africa. This article delves into the patterns, sources, and drivers of air pollution in Africa, and highlights the critical actions needed to address this escalating environmental and public health crisis.
Air pollution in Africa — how bad is it?
Africa is a large continent — second in size only to Asia. It’s got over 1.2 billion people and its population growth is the largest of all continents. But Africa is not a monolith.
Air pollution across Africa varies greatly and has distinct regional pollution patterns and sources. In Nigeria, for example, black carbon emissions are primarily driven by crude oil exploitation. In contrast, South Africa faces high emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrogen dioxide due to coal mining and power generation. Additionally, biomass burning, a common practice across the continent, results in high ozone concentrations and severe indoor air pollution, impacting both outdoor and indoor air quality.
However, the common thread is that pollution is off the charts in almost all cities.
Recent studies reveal that particulate matter concentrations (PM2.5) in many African cities are now 5 to 10 times greater than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization. This surge in air pollution can be attributed to various factors, including crude oil exploitation, coal mining, biomass burning, and the widespread use of old and reconditioned vehicles with low emission standards. The consequences of such pollution are far-reaching, affecting not just environmental health but also contributing to severe health problems for the continent’s inhabitants. Overall, it’s estimated that air pollultion kills 1.1 million people in Africa a year.
Africa is also experiencing rapid urbanization. Its industry is growing, as is the number of cars. All this has significantly contributed to the deterioration of air quality. The continent’s urban transport systems are struggling to cope with increasing demand, leading to a rise in imported old vehicles with low emission standards. These vehicles emit far more pollutants than those meeting higher standards, worsening the air pollution scenario. Furthermore, the continent’s projected population growth and increasing energy demand pose additional challenges in managing air pollution effectively.
Francis Pope, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Birmingham and one of the co-authors, said:
“The burning of biomass fuel for cooking, heating, and lighting, the crude oil exploitation and coal mining industries, and old vehicles being shipped in from Europe are all causes for the poor air quality in African nations.”
“This dangerous air can cause complex and sometimes deadly health issues for those breathing it in. If this wasn’t enough of a reason to tackle this issue, air pollution in Africa is not just a problem for people living on the continent, but for the wider world, limiting the ability to meet global climate targets and combat the climate emergency.”
Addressing Africa’s air pollution crisis
So what can be done to address this? Pope and colleagues highlight a few key areas.
If Africa’s air pollution is to improve, the following are necessary:
- Continuous Air Monitoring: Establishing wider air-quality monitoring networks to measure pollution levels and understand the variations of different pollutants.
- Investment in Clean Energy: Shifting to clean energy sources like solar, hydropower, and wind to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
- Improved Solid Waste Management: Enhancing waste management practices to reduce open dumping and burning, which contribute significantly to air pollution.
- Investment in Environmentally Friendly Technologies: Encouraging the use of clean technologies in industries and transport.
- Infrastructure Improvements: Upgrading public transportation and adopting higher emission standards for fuels and imported vehicles.
Of course, this won’t be easy.
Addressing Africa’s air pollution crisis requires a collective effort involving African countries. There’s no one-size-fits-all approaches, we need regionally tailored solutions and equitable global collaborations. This must include investment in infrastructure and technology as well as capacity building in Africa’s unique context. Collaborative international efforts, coupled with strong local leadership, are key to creating sustainable and effective solutions to this pressing issue.
Co-author of the article, Dr. Gabriel Okello, from the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge and the African Center for Clean Air, said:
“Air pollution is complex and multifaceted with different sources and patterns within society. Addressing it requires more ambitious, collaborative, and participatory approaches centered on involvement of stakeholders in policy, academia, business, communities to co-design and co-produce context-specific interventions.”
“This should be catalyzed by increased investment in interventions that are addressing air pollution. Africa has the opportunity to leverage the growing political will and tap into the young population to accelerate action towards the five broad suggestions in our paper.”
There’s little time for delays. Africa’s air pollution crisis is a global concern that necessitates immediate and coordinated action. As the continent faces rapid changes in its demographic and economic landscape, the time to act is now.
It won’t be easy, but by addressing the root causes of air pollution and implementing comprehensive strategies as suggested by researchers, we can protect the health of millions and ensure a cleaner, healthier future for Africa. The challenge is significant, but with concerted efforts, it is possible to turn the tide against air pollution in Africa.
The article was published in Nature Geoscience.
Was this helpful?