Air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths in Africa in 2019 – the second largest cause of death, exceeded only by HIV/AIDS. Outdoor air pollution levels caused 40% of these deaths.
Rapid urbanisation and fossil fuel-based economic growth will massively increase outdoor air pollution on the continent. According to UNEP’s Air Pollution and Development in Africa report, increased levels of outdoor air pollution in Africa could be the beginning of “a looming problem” – becoming a much larger cause of disease and premature death while posing a major threat to economic development.
The upcoming COP27 in Egypt is a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of tackling air pollution in the continent and to mobilise the resources needed. As part of the State of Global Air Quality Funding 2022, we highlight three worrying trends in air quality funding in Africa in 2015-2021.
In 2019 alone, dirty air killed over one million people in Africa. In 2018, more than 9 million people died prematurely simply by breathing air made toxic from the burning of coal, oil and gas… And the devastating health impacts of air pollution cost countries billions. This trend is set to worsen as African economies industrialise, locking in infrastructure that pumps more carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphereVanessa Nakate, climate justice activist, foreword to our report
Africa receives 3.7% of international development air quality funding
Despite the urgent need to tackle air pollution in the continent, Africa continues to receive a meagre share of total air quality funding from governments, multilateral development banks and bilateral development agencies. Between 2015 and 2021, international development funders committed only $403.6 million to tackling air pollution in the region, representing 3.7% of total air quality funding. This share is disproportionately low, considering 26% of global deaths caused by outdoor air pollution are in Africa. International development funders, which are strategically well positioned to push forward the clean air agenda, must increase their commitments to clean air in the region.
Air quality funding in Africa was highly concentrated geographically, with five countries receiving 88% of total flows in 2015-2021: Egypt (54%), Morocco (24%), Uganda (5%), Niger (3%) and Sudan (3%). This is mainly because funding goes to a few large projects.
At the same time, virtually none of the climate mitigation and adaptation commitments made by international development funders in Africa had air quality explicit objectives. During 2017-2020, funders committed $48 billion to climate projects in the region. Joined air quality and climate funding accounted for only 0.02% of these flows.
36 times more funding to fossil fuel-prolonging projects than air quality
Between 2015 and 2020, international development funders cumulatively committed 36 times more funding to fossil fuel-prolonging ($14.6 billion) projects than air quality ($403.6 million).
One example is the $200 million, 18-year loan from international development funders to Mozambique to develop natural gas reserves. Supporting energy-poor African countries to replace dirtier, more expensive, fossil fuel options may seem advantageous in the short- and medium-term. However, the serious long-term health and environmental impacts must be taken into account too. The opportunity to invest in fossil fuel projects should be weighed up against the investment opportunity of renewables, such as wind, hydro, geothermal and solar energy which are plentiful and largely untapped in countries like Mozambique.
Issues of environmental justice need to be considered too. Donor countries have been challenged for seeking to block financing for fossil-fuel powered energy generation in low- and middle-income countries, while continuing to fund such activities back home. To make matters worse, many countries dump outdated technologies such as used cars and lower-grade fuels on African countries, further burdening the continent with a problem they did not create.
In 2015-2020, international development funders provided virtually no funding to coal, the fossil fuel which has the greatest negative impacts on air pollution and health. While investments in oil and gas are less harmful for health, further investments in these sources risk locking African economies in long term carbon-intensive infrastructure that will eventually need to be phased out. This will result in higher health-related costs for society compared to cleaner alternatives. Fossil fuel-based energy prices are volatile and leave the population vulnerable to market fluctuations. Often, large fossil fuel based projects result in forced displacement, loss of livelihoods, and even increased insecurity from an armed insurgency.
By building their economies around more sustainable energy sources, many African countries have the opportunity to achieve prosperity while avoiding the toxic levels of outdoor air pollution that plague countries whose economic growth is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Case study: Mozambique’s energy transition and carbon lock-in
- The data indicates that, while no coal finance has been committed to Africa by international development funders since 2016, natural gas continues to receive substantial funding in the continent ($531 million per year in 2019-2020). The transition from coal to gas in the short term is consistent with development patterns followed by other countries. Because of the energy access deficit in the region, it is difficult to caution against substitution of one fossil fuel with another lower-emitting one. Nonetheless, with implications for both health and climate in the long run, the region’s natural gas transition demands further consideration to fully understand the costs and benefits at stake, now and over the longer-term.
- In 2020, Mozambique received a $200 million, 18-year loan from international development funders for the development, construction and operation of a 420 MW gas-fired power plant in the Inhambane province in the southern part of the country. This compares to $0.35 million of air quality funding committed to Mozambique over the period 2015-2021.
- Given the vast natural gas reserves available in Mozambique (estimated at 250 trillion cubic feet), heavy reliance of rural populations on forest biomass, and low rates of electrification (34% in 2021), natural gas certainly appears to be an obvious short-term solution to foster economic growth and progress towards SDGs. Though certainly the “lesser of two evils”, set against oil and coal, the Inhambane power plant threatens to lock-in fossil-fuel infrastructure for decades, with long-term implications for sustainable development in Mozambique.
- The burning of natural gas, and unintentional leakages at extraction sites, produce air pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water pollution. All of these have direct implications for public health. For this reason, it’s important that International development funders ensure they are fully accounting for all externalities when deciding to invest. The costs of projects to climate, health and overall development objectives should be quantified during project appraisals. The benefits of natural gas projects needs to be weighed up against the costs of locking-in fossil fuel infrastructure, over the short and longer-term. Moreover, especially given Mozambique’s abundance of untapped hydro, wind, solar and hydrothermal resources, fossil fuel-based development interventions must be compared and priced against viable cleaner alternatives. Where natural gas nonetheless emerges as a first-best development intervention, pricing in all relevant externalities, efforts should be channelled towards mitigating emissions wherever possible (for example, via use of carbon capture technologies).
- Skipping the natural gas rung of the wider energy transition ladder may not be possible for countries like Mozambique, particularly where resource abundance and low energy access rates favour it in the short-term. Nonetheless, limited public development funding resources should be used carefully to invest in projects that are consistent with recipient countries’ climate and health development objectives over the long-term.
Development-funded climate projects ignore air quality
International development funders continue to consider air quality and climate change as separate issues when funding projects in Africa, more so than in the rest of the world. Between 2015 and 2020, only 6% of total air quality funding in the region also simultaneously tackled climate change – as opposed to 76% globally.
0.2% of total philanthropic finance spent on air quality
Foundation funding to Africa totalled only $0.6 million between 2015 and 2021. This represents just 0.2% of total foundation air quality funding over the same time period – with only five foundations providing grants for outdoor air quality directly to the region.
Funders need to target air quality funding to Africa. By working together to understand and address funding gaps, funders can intervene early to reduce inequalities in access to clean air, prevent the problem getting exponentially worse, and achieve air pollution and climate benefits for almost half of the world’s population.
Frequently asked questions
Why should African countries abandon fossil fuels when extractive industries are key to the development of low-income countries?
- It is critical that African countries make their decisions over how they develop. To make good decisions, they need good information. Our report offers the information governments need to make decisions that are in the best interests of their people and the environment.
- Air pollution driven by fossil fuel usage is killing people in Africa every day and stymying economic growth. Air pollution is the second biggest killer on the continent after HIV/AIDS and the problem of dirty air cannot be brushed under the carpet in favour of short-term gains.
- It’s now indisputable that doubling down on fossil fuels won’t deliver the healthy, sustainable growth that all governments should aspire to. Working as quickly as possible towards growth driven by cleaner energy solutions is the best way for governments to get ahead. Supporting this should be the objective of all governments and funders aiming to save lives and grow healthy, strong economies.
- At COP27 we have an opportunity to kick start a conversation around how to change tact and how outside governments can help support this, for everyone’s sake.
Aren’t there bigger problems for African countries to tackle before air pollution?
- Air pollution is one of the greatest challenges facing the continent and urgent action needs to be taken to prevent more people dying as a result of dirty air and to protect the planet. The African Development Bank predicts that by 2060, the majority of Africa’s population will live in megacities, and as populations across the continent grow and rapid urbanisation continues, the urgency to tackle the problem is only increasing. Right now, the opposite is happening, with governments investing heavily in fossil fuels – the main driver of both air pollution and climate change.
- This isn’t about prioritising one issue over another, indeed tackling air pollution head-on is a major opportunity to tackle some of our biggest challenges from improving public health and economic inequality, to preventing further climate disintegration.
- We urgently need to start having these conversations to avoid missed opportunities and COP is the ideal place to do this, for the benefit of countries in Africa and for us all.