In just the last three decades, deaths from air pollution in Africa have risen dramatically, from 164 000 in 1990 to 258 000 in 2017, a nearly 60% increase.

Many factors contribute to this situation including the increasing number of cars, typically second-hand with outdated engines that are cast off from markets in developed countries, and the prevalence of cooking with inefficient stoves and solid biomass such as maize stalks, cobs, municipal and commercial waste, forest litter and charcoal. These activities emit pollutants into the atmosphere, causing harm to human health, the environment and even crop yields.

Africa’s population is expected to nearly double between now and 2050 and with that growth overwhelmingly concentrated in cities, the continent needs targeted and effective interventions to address its air pollution crisis in the most cost-effective and practical way – and soon.

A major problem in tackling this issue is the lack of appropriate data on the continent. Unlike in Europe and North America, where about 72% of children have reliable air monitoring stations near their homes, just 6% of children in Africa do. However, children are particularly vulnerable to the negative health impacts of air pollution and without data, targeted and effective interventions are incredibly hard to design.

Long-distancemale Kenyan athlete competing in road race

A Kenyan athlete in top flight at an international competition. Air pollution can affect athletic performance on the track. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI.

Cross-continental collaboration

This is why SEI supports the development of the Africa integrated assessment on air pollution and climate change. By undertaking an integrated assessment of air pollution, climate change and clean development pathways across the continent, the study will determine the main interventions required to reduce pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, in particular minimizing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs)  such as methane and black carbon, which are particularly harmful to health, agriculture and the climate.

The assessment is part of a growing policy framework on the continent recognizing the importance of SLCP mitigation to address climate change, air pollution and clean development. At the 17th ordinary session of the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN) held in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa from 11–15 November 2019, African ministers committed to supporting SLCP mitigation and recognized the assessment as an important stepping stone to achieving this. The ministers recognized that reducing SLCPs would support Agenda 2063 of the African Union – “the Africa we want” – as well as the Sustainable Development Goals and Nationally Determined Contributions agreed under the Paris Agreement by African countries.

AMCEN meeting underway

A panel at the 17th ordinary session of AMCEN in Durban, South Africa, 11–16 November 2019.
Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI

Progress so far

The logistics of undertaking the assessment are significant, with over 100 researchers representing 22 different countries on the continent. African researchers based on the continent who were nominated by African governments and institutions have been prioritized alongside a balance of gender, regional representation, career stage and different types of expertise.

The assessment completed its first phase in November 2020, which involved recruiting authors and reviewers, capacity building, training activities and establishing a modeling platform to assess emissions of pollutants, their transport in the atmosphere and health, crop and climate impacts across the whole of Africa, with projections for potential benefits in 2030 and 2063.

The assessment is currently in the second phase, which involves understanding the consequences of climate change and air pollution in Africa, identifying the most effective mitigation measures to address this tailoring interventions to national contexts and building local research capacity.

UNEA 5 side event

Africa Assessment coordination team members taking part in a side event at the recent UNEA 5.
Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI.

Capacity building

One of the goals of the Africa Assessment is to increase domestic technical capacity to undertake this kind of research, as well as increase the availability of relevant research on the continent.

“We actually have quite a lot of data when it comes to measurements of air pollution, but unfortunately, this is not always available to governments because the data collection is either done as part of PhD studies at universities outside of Africa or in other short-term projects,” said SEI Africa Centre Director Philip Osano. “The priority for most of this research is not necessarily geared towards improving policies, it’s geared towards getting published.”

To counter this trend, the assessment paired early career researchers with more experienced researchers so that in future years, the continent will have a cadre of experienced professionals with the ability to tackle air pollution and climate change with their own research.

“We were very deliberate to position capacity building and capacity strengthening as a central part of the assessment,” said Osano.

The researchers are also compiling international literature so that existing research is available to policymakers instead of being trapped behind publishing paywalls or in books only available outside of Africa. They are also combining this research with satellite data to glean further insights into air pollution.

The assessment is still open to contributions from projects in the science to policy domain relevant to Africa and its subregions and is also seeking air pollution, climate change and development experts to contribute to the peer-review process of the assessment that UNEP will undertake at the end of April 2022.

To provide a contribution to the assessment or contribute to the peer review system, please contact [email protected]

Capacity building

Capacity building for Nairobi City County Members of Parliament on air quality legislation.
Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI.