Youth Can Help Fight Air Pollution in Africa. Here's How


Rapid urbanisation is a major factor in Africa's rising levels of air pollution Image:  REUTERS/Amir Cohen

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From pollution to solution in Africa’s cities

On this page, explore the report:, executive summary, key recommendations.

Cities in Africa are growing fast: over 65% of the population will live in urban areas by 2060. This rapid urbanisation is drastically increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution is already Africa’s second biggest cause of death, after HIV/AIDS. So how can African cities catalyse growth that is fast, fair and sustainable?

This report looks at the potential benefits of tackling air pollution and climate change together in four cities: Cairo, Lagos, Johannesburg and Accra. Our analysis maps the health, economic and climate impacts of increasing air pollution along a “business as usual” growth path. It then contrasts this trajectory with an alternative scenario in which cities implement clean air measures as they grow, such as upgraded public transport, cleaner cookstoves, and greener industrial technology and energy. The findings suggest that similar gains could be achieved in other major cities experiencing exponential growth across Africa.

The impact of air pollution affects us all, but not equally. With over 1 million deaths caused by polluted air in Africa in just 2019, our continent’s great cities are at the frontlines of this often-overlooked health, economic and environmental crisis…To make the case for investing in fixing air pollution to their constituents, decision makers need credible and quality information like what this report presents. Mohammed Adjei Sowah, former Mayor of Accra, foreword

Africa’s economic growth will be driven by fast-expanding cities. Over 65% of the continent’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2060 . By the end of the century, Africa will host 5 of the 10 largest megacities in the world. 

The big question now is how fast, fair and sustainable this growth will be. Without ambitious plans to adopt new pathways to healthy and sustainable urban development , rapid urbanisation will increase the damaging health, economic and social impacts of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in these cities. Dirty air is already the continent’s second largest cause of death after HIV/AIDS. In 2019, air pollution caused 1.1 million deaths across Africa. Air pollution’s silent pandemic has already hit, so “business-as-usual” can no longer be the default option for growing cities. The most vulnerable people are always hit hardest, deepening the structural injustices in African cities that already have the world’s second highest rates of inequality , and compounding the damaging effects of climate change. 

There is another way. Findings from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Africa integrated assessment on air pollution and climate change (to be released during COP27) have shown that by prioritising air pollution along with climate change solutions, governments could unlock a raft of health, environmental and economic benefits for their citizens. Both air pollution and climate change are mainly caused by burning fossil fuels, so many of the solutions are the same. Toxic air disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, so addressing it will reduce health inequalities. And because it severely hampers productivity, cognitive performance and wellbeing, initiatives that clean the air will provide economic benefits. 

So, national and city governments should recognise an economic opportunity to join the dots and use action on clean air as a catalyst for sustainable growth, which also helps mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

This report takes a sample of four fast-expanding African cities: Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg and Lagos. It uses analysis from Dalberg Advisors to present a snapshot of key health, environmental and financial costs assuming a “business as usual” trajectory to 2040. It then contrasts this with an indicative scenario in which the cities adopt a set of clean air measures. 

Based on this analysis, our report suggests that on their current path, some of Africa’s fastest-growing cities will see the financial costs of air pollution increase more than sixfold by 2040. On the flipside, these cities – and others like them – could unlock billions of dollars with policies and planning that enable green growth. The financial efficiencies would be accompanied by multiple other benefits like fewer deaths, lower emissions and reduced poverty. 

This data visualisation shows the estimated outcomes from measures such as upgrading public transport, introducing cleaner cookstoves and cleaner industrial technology, and making land clearance and waste management more environmentally-friendly. It estimates the economic benefits each city could reap from improving life expectancy and reducing working days lost to the health effects of air pollution.

Use the arrows to navigate through these 6 key findings :

Between them, the cities could save at least 40,000 lives, unlock $20.4bn and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20% between 2023 and 2040. While these numbers are significant, the true benefits are likely to be higher, because they omit the positive effects of reducing air pollution’s impact on health care, agricultural production, productivity, and the environment.

These numbers are only indicative of the scale of the problem. Further research is needed to robustly quantify these findings using best practice modelling approaches. The projected benefits from air quality action are expressed in this study in financial terms, but these financialised benefits should not be understood to mean tangible funds raised or costs saved. The co-benefits gained from air quality action provide greater cost-effectiveness that recycles into local economies, strengthening health systems, businesses and government finances.

Implications for the whole continent and beyond

These findings have wider implications than these four cities. In November 2022, the world will gather for the COP27 climate negotiations in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt. The debate will focus on enabling a just transition away from fossil fuels while adapting to climate change. 

The case for connecting such action with air pollution reduction has never been stronger. Influential recent studies highlight that current climate finance across Africa falls far short of its adaptation and mitigation needs, and calls for a massive uptick in outside investment. Clean Air Fund research published ahead of COP26 in Glasgow shows that action on climate change can be achieved more cheaply, quickly, and fairly by prioritising solutions that also deliver cleaner air. 

Meanwhile the 2022 IPCC report on climate mitigation showed that the financial value of health benefits from improving air quality alone would far exceed the costs of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

The significant benefits to human health, the environment and other social and economic advantages outlined in this report will help Africa achieve the goals of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want , a “master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future”.

Clean air is not a named goal of Agenda 2063, the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development or the UNFCCC’s Paris agreements. But it is critical to achieving most of their targets. 

The UN General Assembly recently declared access to a healthy environment a basic human right. As with air pollution, the climate calculations are particularly stark for African economies. The continent is warming faster than the global average , despite contributing less than 3% to total global greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of this, recent Clean Air Fund Research shows less than 4% of total aid funding for reducing air pollution is directed at Africa. Perversely, from 2015-2021, donor governments spent 36 times more aid on prolonging fossil fuel use in Africa than tackling air pollution. 

This plays into a topical debate around how developing economies are supported to transition away from the fossil fuel-led development that will destroy their futures, without missing out on growth opportunities the richer world benefited from. 

The economic fundamentals of such calculations are shifting fast. Recent research finds that renewable energy is now a cheaper option than fossil fuels, and could save the world as much as $12tn by 2050. Measures that shift away from fossil fuels increasingly make economic sense on their own terms, and will also provide solutions to air pollution. Acting on this evidence is a matter of political choice and leadership from governments, donors, funders and investors.

This report sets out the case for urban planning and national policies that prioritise clean air as an engine for fast, fair and sustainable growth in powerhouses like Accra, Cairo, Lagos and Johannesburg. City leaders working on this agenda closely with national and regional institutions will also contribute substantially to wider efforts to fight climate change and position nations to thrive in a low-carbon future. 

  • Cities should commit to the C40 Clean Air Cities Declaration and planning framework . Cities should also improve tracking and reporting systems to provide data and evidence, which supports an integrated approach to emission control actions. 
  • National governments must review high-emitting sectors like energy, transport, industrial and power production to identify ways to reduce air pollution. They should also prioritise health and climate gains in infrastructure and service investments, and make action on air pollution an explicit priority in climate action and sustainable development activities.  
  • Funders should increase Official Development Assistance and other grant-based funding for air quality programmes, focusing especially on overlooked regions like Africa. Support should be diverted from fossil-fuel investments towards renewables.

See our full recommendations for  African governments, city mayors and other local government leaders  across Africa, OECD-DAC donors and multilateral development banks , philanthropic foundations and civil society organisations .

Go to next section: 1. Context: challenges and opportunities

Or explore the rest of the report :

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Air pollution in Africa

Africa could be spared a host of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, through cleaner air , but air pollution data across the continent that could influence policy is of poor quality or inaccessible, making efforts to track air quality difficult. Now, satellite data can predict air quality in cities and towns and can plug the gap in African cities without ground-based sensors.

Strong community activism often succeeds in holding governments accountable for ensuring they reduce air pollution; environmental groups have taken the South African Government to court over violations of the constitutional right to clean air. On April 9, 2020, Barbara Creecy, South Africa's Environment minister upheld an appeal lodged by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) against her department, ordering 16 of South Africa's biggest polluters, including Eskom, Sasol, ArcelorMittal, PPC, Exxaro, South32, Glencore, Seriti, SAPPI, and Anglo American, to disclose actual greenhouse gas emissions and anticipated emission reductions over the next 5 years. The environmental department had removed the key information when reporting these targets to CER.

On June 7, 2019, environmental justice group groundWork and Mpumalanga community organisation Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, guided by a study compiled by the air pollution specialist Andrew Gray, took the Government to the High Court saying 14 facilities (12 coal-powered plants and two fuel refineries) had caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in 2016. Mpumalanga province accounts for about 83% of South Africa's coal production. The country's power utility Eskom owns the 12 coal-fired power plants located in the area.

In Africa, such court challenges might seem like a non-event in a sea of other challenges. There is lack of substantive capacity for air quality measurement. Only seven of 54 African countries have reliable, real-time air pollution monitors, says a 2019 UNICEF report . Ground-based, real-time data helps to capture fluctuations in air quality, which is important to improve public awareness, and to help people to alter their behaviours to reduce air pollution and exposure to it.

Particulate matter (PM) measurements of 2·5 or higher pose an invisible threat to health. Without the means to measure PM and its components, how can populations be safeguarded against its potentially negative effects on health? “Without high quality air pollution data, researchers cannot do human health risk assessment studies or epidemiology studies”, says Janine Wichmann, head of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria (Pretoria, South Africa).

Evidence suggests that air pollution can lead to a multitude of health problems, but current epidemiological studies are based in the developed world. More studies are now coming from China and the rest of the developing world, but fewer are coming from Africa, Wichmann says. This scarcity of African data matters because air pollution levels and composition, the weather, and the general health and age of the population in Africa are different to other countries, which can result in different outcomes when doing epidemiological studies, she adds.

“Data on air quality are crucial to guide policy making and to address the challenges caused by poor air quality among various stakeholders”, says Gabriel Okello, director of African Centre of Clean Air, based in Kampala, Uganda. Additionally, absence of national policies on air quality in most African countries renders combating air pollution a low priority on the public health agenda of many governments, he says.

The UNICEF report says outdoor air pollution deaths increased from 164 000 in 1990 to 258 000 in 2017, and with population, industrial, and consumption growth potentially increasing, the levels of pollution will subsequently increase. Projections estimate that Africa's population will double by 2050 from 1·2 billion. More than 80% of that increase will occur in cities, leading to increased traffic and hence air pollution.

In an east African study , the change in pollution levels from 1974 to 2018 is illustrated. Without quality historic air pollution data, researchers used visibility to estimate the pollution increase in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Nairobi (Kenya), and Kampala (Uganda). The significant visibility decrease found estimated that air pollution had increased by 62% in Addis Ababa, 162% in Kampala, and 182% in Nairobi.

It does not automatically follow that such studies will be considered by policy makers. Okello and colleagues researched ambient air pollution in Kampala, which led to a discussion with policy makers about the age of cars during importation. Out of 50 000 cars imported by Uganda annually, only about 10% are brand new. However, so far the “policy has not yet been changed”, says Okello.

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The African data science platform Zindi organised a series of virtual hackathons to harness expertise of people who were unable to leave their homes during April and May due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We quickly recognised that air quality data are scarce and totally absent in large parts of Africa and fortunately this is something that a machine learning model could address”, says Paul Kennedy, coordinator at Zindi. Zindi obtained ground sensor quality data and satellite data for several cities across the world. They then attracted more than 200 data scientists globally in a challenge to use only publicly available satellite data to predict air quality on the ground, out of which a model emerged. The model was validated and closely matched predictions from the ground sensors; it can also be applied to countries without ground sensors. “We can say that the model is within 90–95% accuracy compared with ground sensors”, Kennedy says, adding that “any country without a quality data can use this model, which is much cheaper and easier than ground sensors as it excludes manpower and infrastructure costs”.

“Satellite data as proxies for air pollution data are being used in epidemiology studies, but the satellite data needs to be verified in studies by doing air pollution measurements on the ground”, Wichmann says. She also suggests that researchers can start measuring air pollution in their own studies, but this is not financially sustainable. “When research funding dries up, then the air pollution measurements stop.”

Okello is concerned that public awareness of the effects of air pollution is low. Timothy Lloyd, attorney for the Centre for Environmental Rights, says further regulatory development in some areas under the environmental or climate change legislative framework needs more development and strengthening. “What we really need is the political will and capacity to properly implement and rigorously enforce the air quality laws that are already in place; these laws exist to protect people's constitutional rights and must be respected at every turn”, Lloyd says.

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