Air Pollution Crisis Looms Over Africa’s Expanding Cities
Aerial view of Accra, Ghana. Traffic, waste burning and desert dust all combine to make pollution a problem in this fast-growing city.

Africa is home to many of the world’s fastest-growing urban centres – and a crisis of air pollution faces the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, according to a new Clean Air Fund report released Thursday. 

Africa, home to the world’s youngest population, is expected to see its population nearly double by mid-century, reaching 3.9 billion by 2100. 

Over 65% of Africa’s population will reside in urban areas by 2060, with the continent potentially hosting five of the world’s ten largest megacities by the end of the century, according to the report. The 600-mile coastline stretching from the Nigerian capital of Lagos to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire alone is projected to be home to around half a billion people by 2100. 

Africa’s rapid urbanization is providing an engine for its fast-growing economies, but there is a significant hidden cost: air pollution.

“The challenges that flow from rapid urbanization across the continent are immense, including drastic increases in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which if unchecked will bring disastrous consequences for human and economic health,” Kevin Urama, Chief Economist at the African Development Bank, explained in a statement accompanying the report’s launch. 

Across the six cities, potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions vary, with some achieving a reduction of up to 35%, resulting in a collective avoidance of 0.8 Gt CO2e. (BAU = business as usual)

The study focuses on six major and rapidly expanding African cities—Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yaoundé. Air pollution led to over 56,400 premature deaths across the six cities in 2022, costing a minimum of $2 billion, the report found. Toxic air claimed an estimated 1.1 million lives across Africa in 2019—surpassing the combined toll of tobacco, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, and unsafe water. 

Road traffic is identified as the largest contributor to PM2.5 air pollution concentrations across the six cities studied, accounting for 30% and 40% of PM2.5 concentrations in Lagos and Accra, respectively.

Other culprits include industrial activities, power plants, biomass fuels, and waste mismanagement. As the cities grow and their populations rise, emissions from these sources are set to skyrocket. More people will require more cars, energy, and fuels, and create more waste, leading to a spike in air pollution. 

If current trends persist, the financial toll of air pollution in Africa’s major cities could surge more than eightfold by 2040, the report found. The cost will also be paid in over one million premature deaths by 2040 – 109,000 of which can be saved by implementing policies to combat air pollution. 

“On the current trajectory, following a ‘business as usual’ approach means air pollution will collectively cost Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yaoundé an estimated $138 billion in premature deaths and worker absenteeism over the next two decades,” said Urama.

Opportunities to change track 

Implementing policies to reduce air pollution could prevent a total of 109,000 premature deaths across the six cities between 2023 – 2040, according to the report.

Despite the grim outlook, the report presents a roadmap to avert the potentially catastrophic consequences of air pollution . It emphasizes the potential for substantial economic benefits—billions of dollars saved, reduced deaths, improved public health, lower emissions, and decreased poverty—of implementing policies promoting green growth.

The report urges African governments to review high-emitting sectors at the national level, including energy, transport, industry, power production, agriculture, and waste management.

By identifying ways to reduce air pollution in these sectors, governments can simultaneously address climate change, and create opportunities for green economic growth. The report emphasizes the need to enshrine air quality targets into national and district-level laws, ensuring long-term commitment beyond political cycles.

City mayors and local government leaders are urged to adopt low-cost, low-maintenance air quality monitoring devices to gather comprehensive data for evidence-based decision-making. These devices will enable cities to pinpoint pollution hotspots, track trends, and assess the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.

As more governments and municipalities embrace air monitoring technologies, data sharing can also be enhanced across borders and within countries, empowering local and national authorities to formulate evidence-based policies on air quality-related public health matters.

Accra could unlock $25m, Johannesburg $55m, Nairobi $23m and Yaoundé $27m in 2040 alone by implementing clean air measures.

Across Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yaoundé, implementing clean air measures such as upgrading public transport and adopting cleaner cookstoves could save over $19.2 billion across the six cities by 2040.

In Accra, which will host the first-ever World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution summit in 2024, the economic impact of air pollution, including absenteeism and premature mortality, is expected to quadruple between 2019 and 2040. However, the city could unlock over $25 million in 2040 alone through implementing measures to reduce air pollution.

While the report’s financial projections are significant, it acknowledges that the true benefits could be even greater, considering the positive ripple effects on healthcare, agriculture, productivity, and the environment.

“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 report notes. “The co-benefits gained from air quality action provide greater cost-effectiveness that recycles into local economies, strengthening health systems, businesses and government finances.”

By implementing clean air measures, such as upgrading public transport and cleaner cookstoves, these six cities could save over $19.2 billion between 2023 – 2040.

The report also highlights the startling lack of international and multilateral development funding to fight air pollution in Africa, with only 5% of total aid directed at reducing air pollution on the continent.

In Lagos, a city home to nearly 16 million people, the official development funding directed toward air pollution from 2015 to 2020 amounted to a mere $0.25 million. Air pollution claimed 70,000 in the city in 2019 alone. 

Between 2015 and 2021, donor governments provided a stunning 36 times more aid for prolonging fossil fuel use in Africa than tackling air pollution, despite the continent facing temperatures warming faster than the global average.

The report calls on international and multilateral development banks to provide increased technical support to assist countries in accessing green funds, dedicated funds for financing air quality data monitoring capacities are recommended, acknowledging the critical role such data plays in obtaining other climate financing.

“It is well understood that tackling poverty, bringing clean water to people everywhere, and investing in education are all critical to Africa’s development,” said Urama. “Ensuring our citizens can breathe clean air is also a vital, but too often neglected, piece of this puzzle.”

Image Credits: WHO/Blink Media, Nana Kofi Acquah.

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