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Air pollution has replaced unsafe drinking water and bad sanitation as a leading cause of death in some parts of Africa.

Globally, the specter of air pollution looms large, with city ambiances shadowed by particle pollution. This microscopic assailant, primarily born from the relentless churn of traffic, is responsible for a full 25% of the smog that clouds our urban skies. Industrial processes contribute another 15%, while the hearths of our homes add 20% through domestic fuel burning. A further 22% emanates from a mix of unspecified human activities, including the disposal of waste and the rise of buildings and other constructions. It’s a tale of two culprits: the transport and energy sectors, which cast a long shadow over outdoor air quality, and the simple act of cooking indoors, which often sullies the air we breathe within our own homes.

The consequences of this pollution are profound, transcending environmental boundaries to strike at both health and the economy. Imagine, if you will, a world where a staggering 92% of people inhale air that falls short of health standards, triggering 7 million premature deaths every year. The economic burden is colossal, with annual costs ranging from $2.9 trillion to $8.1 trillion, slicing away 3.3% to 6.1% of the global GDP. Within a year, the haze of pollution is linked to the loss of 4.5 million lives, 1.8 billion workdays evaporated, 4 million new cases of asthma in children, and 2 million babies born too early. The scale of our global response and investment in cleaner air is dwarfed by the enormity of these figures.

Zooming in on Africa, the continent’s struggle with air pollution is on an upward trajectory, now ranking as the second most critical risk to health after the scourge of malnutrition. A historical lens reveals a concerning trend: while the ’90s to the mid-2000s saw a reduction in deaths from unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, deaths from air pollution swelled from approximately 570,000 to over 700,000. This rise in premature mortality underscores the urgency for solutions tailored to Africa’s unique environmental and socioeconomic landscape.

Despite the significant risks posed by air pollution, a mere 41 cities across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are actively monitoring air quality. This step is pivotal for assessing risks and crafting viable solutions. Alarmingly, only 6% of African children live within a radius where air quality monitoring is available. When it comes to policy, just 19 African countries have enacted enforceable ambient air quality standards. This lack of comprehensive monitoring and regulation means that, despite the existence of data and policies, there isn’t always a corresponding commitment to invest in the necessary preventative measures.

For instance, in the majority of African cities that do report on air quality, levels of air pollutants often surpass the minimum air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). In some cases, measurements of PM2.5—a particularly harmful particulate matter—are more than fourfold the WHO’s recommended limits. This gap between policy and practice underscores the need for more robust investment in air quality management.

The path forward requires a multi-faceted approach. Drawing from global examples where data-driven strategies have enhanced policy effectiveness is crucial. This includes measures such as promoting clean transportation, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, boosting energy efficiency, encouraging recycling and waste reduction, and integrating air quality considerations into building regulations. The efficacy of such policies is heavily reliant on their implementation. Success stories, like Beijing’s impressive reduction of PM2.5 levels by 35% in five years through a combination of rigorous science and regional collaboration, serve as a testament to the power of well-executed air quality initiatives.

There’s also a pressing need to shift the air pollution dialogue from being seen solely as a social or environmental issue to one of economic investment. The air quality monitoring market is expected to expand from $4.9 billion in 2023 to $6.9 billion in 2028, demonstrating a robust 7% annual growth rate. To capitalize on this potential, cities could adopt innovative strategies, such as partnering with sports organizations, to foster investment and enhance public engagement with air quality issues. This approach could significantly increase the accessibility and implementation of air monitoring in urban areas.

Accessible solutions are critical for communities most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s reported that targeted actions in specific sectors could dramatically improve conditions. These include the adoption of cleaner and more efficient public transport systems, the use of cleaner cookstoves and alternative fuels, the implementation of greener industrial technologies, and the reduction of harmful practices like slash-and-burn land clearing and open waste incineration. Such interventions could transform the lives of four major African cities, potentially saving over 120,000 lives and yielding $20 billion in economic benefits from 2023 to 2040. Transitioning to cleaner cooking methods is a significant step toward better air quality for the most at-risk populations.

The concept of Early Warning for the Environment (EWE) introduces a proactive dimension to air quality monitoring. While sensors and satellites provide valuable data on current air quality or midstream information, it’s crucial to identify and mitigate the upstream causes—be they slow-onset sources like pollution from fossil fuels and waste methane emissions, or rapid-onset events such as toxic gas leaks and natural disasters. Solutions like the deployment of biodigesters, investment in clean transportation, the use of industrial exhaust scrubbers, and the promotion of non-motorized transport are all strategies that can be employed to address these causes and improve air quality.

These solutions must be optimized and aligned with investment opportunities to encourage the necessary financial backing. Investment planning should consider key enablers like financial viability, the potential for profitability, the development and implementation of skills, and policy incentives like tax breaks and waivers that encourage the uptake of these solutions. For example, biodigesters not only help manage waste but also produce biogas and biofertilizers, which can become profitable products in the market, thereby creating business and income opportunities. Supportive policy measures, such as tax incentives for companies developing these technologies, along with the enhancement of skills in technical training institutions, are vital social enablers.

Ultimately, transforming air quality monitoring and early warnings into concrete actions requires a comprehensive value chain approach. This includes monitoring upstream pollution sources, assessing the midstream state of air quality, and focusing on downstream solutions that are optimized for investment potential. Secondary and tertiary data from case studies can also be utilized to support investment planning for these solutions. Adopting this holistic EWE strategy is essential to catalyzing the early action needed to protect and restore air quality, not just in Africa, but globally.

Dr. Richard Munang is a multiple award-winning environment and development policy thought leader and climate change and sustainable development expert. Richard is also author of 'Making Africa Work Through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism' in 2018.

Robert Mgendi works with the Africa Climate Change Programme.