Is Africa‘s Air Quality Crisis Overlooked?

Over the past 50 years, air quality in African nations has sharply declined, transforming their cities into global pollution hotspots. Particulate matter levels now exceed World Health Organization recommendations by five to ten times, with a mere 0.01% of global air pollution funding allocated to Africa. Authored by experts from prestigious institutions, the report urgently calls for collective action from African nations and advocates for innovative, region-specific solutions on a global scale.

Image depicting urban air pollution in Africa, highlighting the urgent need for global efforts to address environmental challenges.

In Africa, a pressing issue has come to the forefront, courtesy of a recent report in Nature Geoscience. Over the past half-century, the air quality in African nations has rapidly deteriorated, transforming their cities into some of the most polluted globally. Shockingly, the concentration of particulate matter in the air now surpasses World Health Organization recommendations by five to ten times. With populations on the rise and industrialization gaining momentum, the situation is poised to worsen.

However, despite the severity of the problem, a meager 0.01% of global air pollution funding is currently directed towards Africa. This glaring neglect has left the continent grappling with the hazardous consequences of poor air quality.

Published in Nature Geoscience, a new perspective piece authored by experts from the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, South Eastern Kenya University, and the African Centre for Clean Air underscores the need for collective action from African countries. It emphasizes the necessity for regionally tailored solutions and advocates for global collaboration to combat this critical issue.

Professor Francis Pope, an expert in Atmospheric Science at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the piece, points out the various contributors to the poor air quality in African nations: “The burning of biomass fuel, crude oil exploitation, coal mining, and the importation of old vehicles from Europe all play a role.” This polluted air not only poses severe health risks to those breathing it in but also extends its impact beyond the continent, hindering global efforts to meet climate targets and address the climate emergency.

Despite some initiatives, such as the signing of the C40 Clean Air Declaration by ten major African cities and efforts to monitor air pollution, much remains to be done. The researchers argue for coordinated regional and international efforts to bring about real change, leveraging existing knowledge on controlling air pollution.

The urgent call is for collaboration on five key fronts:

1. Continuous air monitoring through a network of sensors to build a comprehensive understanding of air pollution variations and track progress.

2. Investment in clean energy sources such as solar, hydropower, and wind to meet the expected doubling of Africa’s energy demand by 2040.

3. Enhanced solid waste management to prevent dumping and burning, promoting reuse, recycling, and recovery.

4. Investment in environmentally friendly technology to ensure economic growth without resorting to outdated technology from the Global North.

5. Infrastructure improvements to curb emissions from the transport sector, focusing on enhancing public transport and adopting higher emission standards for fuel and imported vehicles.

Co-author Dr. Gabriel Okello from the University of Cambridge stresses the complexity of addressing air pollution, calling for more ambitious, collaborative, and participatory approaches involving stakeholders from policy, academia, business, and communities.

Dr. Andriannah Mbandi from South Eastern Kenya University, another co-author, highlights the disproportionate burden of air pollution on poorer populations, especially women and children. She sees clean air actions as a means to address inequalities and benefit both health and the environment.

Professor Pope emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Africa’s air quality challenges. Each region and population will face unique challenges, but by proactively implementing these five actions, a tangible reduction in air pollution levels can be achieved, leading to healthier people and a healthier planet.

Drawing Parallels with China’s Air Quality Challenge

While the recent report in Nature Geoscience has thrust Africa into the spotlight regarding escalating air pollution levels, it’s crucial to recognize that this is not an isolated challenge. A parallel can be drawn with China, where the rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization has also led to severe air quality issues over the years.

China, like Africa, has witnessed a surge in particulate matter concentrations, surpassing international recommendations. Despite being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, a substantial portion of global air pollution funding has not been directed toward addressing China’s air quality challenges.

Much like the call for collective action in Africa, China, too, faces the imperative for regionally tailored solutions and global collaboration. Investments in clean energy, enhanced waste management, and environmentally friendly technology are vital for both regions to combat air pollution effectively.

Continuous air monitoring, investment in clean energy, improved waste management, technological innovation, and infrastructure improvements are key pillars for a comprehensive approach in both regions. Addressing these shared challenges requires pragmatic solutions and international cooperation, underscoring the interconnected nature of our global environmental concerns.