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Africa's escalating air pollution crisis is a global problem

A new report published in the journal Nature Geoscience addresses the escalating air pollution crisis in Africa, where air quality has been rapidly deteriorating for years. The research points to a critical need for international action to address this issue, as it has become a global problem.

Over the past five decades, African nations have experienced a sharp decline in air quality, now ranking their cities among the most polluted worldwide. 

Unequal burden

“The burden of air pollution unjustly rests on poorer populations, and women and children, as they most likely face higher exposure to pollutants and most probably experience more impacts,” said study co-author Dr. Andriannah Mbandi from South Eastern Kenya University.

“Thus, clean air actions will go some ways in redressing some of these inequalities in Africa, in addition to the benefits to health and the environment.”

Dangerous air quality 

Current particulate matter levels are far above the World Health Organization’s recommended limits, and this trend is expected to worsen with continued population growth and industrialization. Despite this, a mere 0.01% of global air pollution funding has been allocated to Africa. 

“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,” said said study co-author Professor Francis Pope of the University of Birmingham.

“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.”

Urgent call for action

Efforts to mitigate the situation, like the C40 Clean Air Declaration signed by ten major African cities and increasing initiatives to monitor air quality, represent steps in the right direction. 

However, the experts say that much remains to be done, advocating for a synergy of regional and international strategies to harness existing knowledge for tangible improvements.

The call to action from researchers is clear and urgent, highlighting key areas for collaboration:

  • Establishing continuous air monitoring through a widespread network of sensors to track air pollution trends and progress.
  • Investing in clean energy solutions, including solar, hydropower, and wind, to support Africa’s energy needs, which are projected to double by 2040.
  • Enhancing solid waste management to reduce waste dumping and burning, while boosting recycling and recovery.
  • Promoting green technology investments to enable African countries to develop economically without relying on outdated and polluting technologies from the Global North.
  • Upgrading infrastructure to reduce transport emissions, improve public transportation, and adopt stricter emission standards for fuels and imported vehicles.

Addressing the issue

“Air pollution is complex and multifaceted with different sources and patterns within society. Addressing it requires more ambitious, collaborative, and participatory approaches centred on involvement of stakeholders in policy, academia, business, communities to co-design and co-produce context-specific interventions,” explained study co-author Dr. Gabriel Okello from the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

“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 is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to Africa’s air quality problems, and each region and population will have their own specific challenges to overcome. But by being proactive and doing these five actions there will be a reduction in air pollution levels, meaning healthier people and a healthier planet,” concluded Professor Pope.

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