Speeding ahead with a rear-view vision: the looming crisis of air pollution in Africa

By Dr Rana Roy, Consulting Economist, author of The Cost of Air Pollution in Africa, OECD Development Centre Working Papers, 2016

WHO Global map of modelled annual median concentration of PM2.5

Africa is speeding toward a new crisis: an explosive increase in air pollution, with all its human and economic costs.

Africa is by no means alone in suffering the modern curse of air pollution. No less than 92% of the world’s population is now exposed to pollution levels exceeding World Health Organisation limits.[1] Nor is Africa “over-represented” in the global death toll from air pollution as it stands today. The total of premature deaths attributable to each of the two main types of air pollution, ambient particulate matter pollution (APMP) and household air pollution (HAP), stood at around 3 million.[2] Of these, Africa accounted for around 250,000 premature deaths from APMP, less than its share of the global population would suggest, and over 450,000 premature deaths from HAP, roughly in line with its share. In comparison, it is China, with its 900,000 deaths from APMP and 800,000 deaths from HAP that dominated the global death toll in 2013.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suppose that Africa is heading toward a crisis as a new OECD Development Centre working paper, The cost of air pollution in Africa, argues.

The first point to note here is that in Africa air pollution is an increasing problem.

In the near quarter-century from 1990 to 2013, the annual toll of premature deaths from HAP – that is, from “traditional” polluting forms of domestic energy use for cooking and other consumption needs –changed little worldwide. It fell in many emerging economies including China – and to near-zero in the advanced economies – even as it rose in others. In Africa, over this period, it rose by 18%.

Over the same period, the annual toll of premature deaths from APMP – that is, mainly from road transport, industry and power generation – increased worldwide by around 30%. It increased by 36% in Africa over this period, outpacing the global increase. China, to be sure, recorded an even-greater increase; but the rate of increase has decelerated in recent years. In Africa, it continues to accelerate.

Moreover, if we look to the future, it becomes apparent that, without drastic changes in policy settings, the problem is likely to worsen significantly.

From 1990 to the present, and at each succeeding five-year interval in between, the death toll from air pollution in Africa has risen in tandem with the uninterrupted growth in the size of Africa’s urban population over this period. This is unsurprising. In the case of APMP, the sources of emissions are located mainly in urban environments; in the case of HAP, the coincidence of high-density housing in urban areas, often in slums, with polluting forms of domestic energy use exacerbates the health impacts of the latter. But every demographic projection for the decades ahead shows continuing growth in the urban population, in both absolute and relative terms. Thus, assuming that policies on the patterns of urban life do not change, the future growth of urban Africa might well bring with it an explosive growth in premature deaths from the various forms of air pollution.

Yet, decision makers and their constituents in Africa do not appear to be sufficiently focused on this future. Air pollution today claims a higher toll in China than it does in Africa. But if the Chinese are seeing a break in this trend, it is partly because air pollution dominates the daily news cycle in Beijing, and has been doing so for some time. This is not yet the case in Cairo or Lagos or other air pollution hotspots in Africa. Rather, Africa’s focus still remains on much older environmental and developmental challenges. It is as if we were speeding ahead with a rear-view vision.

This rear-view vision is perhaps understandable. After all, Africa’s old environmental problems of unsafe water and unsafe sanitation have not disappeared, nor has the ancient curse of poverty in the form of deaths of underweight children. What we see rather is a convergence of these various old and new risk factors, with the toll from the old falling to meet the rising toll from the new.

Nonetheless, to speed ahead with a rear-view vision is dangerous. It is the toll from air pollution that is rising; and it is the toll from APMP – from road transport, industry and power generation – that is rising fastest. This is not a problem that can be deflected today in the hope of addressing it at some far future date: by then, the death toll will climb into the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands and the cost in dollars will climb into the trillions rather than the hundreds of billions that we can report today.

Now therefore is the time to face and confront the challenge of air pollution.

If we recognise air pollution as but one part of a larger convergence of environmental challenges, old and new, should not the answer lie in an appropriately convergent response rather than in postponing the response to air pollution? How about a comprehensive programme of public investment in urban improvements, simultaneously tackling water, sanitation, domestic energy use and transport systems? How would the benefit-cost numbers stack up, counting not only the benefits in terms of lives saved but in terms of the improvements in health, quality of life, productivity and the material standard of living?

This is the conversation that we need. The new paper, The cost of air pollution in Africa, is an attempt to trigger this conversation.


[1] According to the World Health Organization’s latest report published in September 2016, Ambient air pollution: A global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, based on 2012 data.

[2] According to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 published in September 2015, based on 2013 data