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From pollution to solution in Africa’s cities

The case for investing in air pollution and climate change together. This research analyses the health, economic and environmental benefits of clean air in Africa’s six fastest growing cities.

Published: 23 November 2023
This report has been updated from 2022 to include analysis of two additional cities (Nairobi and Yaoundé

Cities in Africa are growing fast: over 65% of the population will live in urban areas by 2060. This rapid urbanisation is drastically increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. So how can African cities catalyse growth that is fast, fair and sustainable?

This report looks at the potential benefits of tackling air pollution and climate change together in six cities: Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Yaoundé. Our analysis maps the health, economic and climate impacts of increasing air pollution along a “business as usual” growth path. It then contrasts this trajectory with an alternative scenario in which cities implement clean air measures as they grow, such as upgraded public transport, cleaner cookstoves, and greener industrial technology and energy. The findings suggest that similar gains could be achieved in other major cities experiencing exponential growth across Africa.

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As the annual International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA) approaches, our policy brief outlines recommendations for African governments to generate billions in economic benefits in their rapidly growing cities.

lives could be saved across the six cities
in economic costs could be saved by reduced air pollution in these six cities
decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040

The impact of air pollution affects us all, but not equally. With over 1 million deaths caused by polluted air in Africa in just 2019, our continent’s great cities are at the frontlines of this often-overlooked health, economic and environmental crisis…To make the case for investing in fixing air pollution to their constituents, decision makers need credible and quality information like what this report presents.

Mohammed Adjei Sowah, former Mayor of Accra, foreword

Executive summary

Africa’s economic growth will be driven by fast-expanding cities. Over 65% of the continent’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2060. By the end of the century, Africa will host 5 of the 10 largest megacities in the world. 

The big question now is how fast, fair and sustainable this growth will be. Without ambitious plans to adopt new pathways to healthy and sustainable urban development, rapid urbanisation will increase the damaging health, economic and social impacts of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions within these cities. In 2019, toxic air caused 1.1 million deaths across Africa, claiming more lives than tobacco, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents and unsafe water combined. Air pollution’s silent pandemic has already hit, so “business-as-usual” can no longer be the default option for growing cities. The most vulnerable people are always hit hardest, deepening the structural injustices in African cities that already have the world’s second highest rates of inequality, and compounding the damaging effects of climate change. 

There is another way. Findings from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Africa integrated assessment on air pollution and climate change (released during COP27 in 2022) have shown that by prioritising air pollution along with climate change solutions, governments could unlock a raft of health, environmental and economic benefits for their citizens. Both air pollution and climate change are mainly caused by burning fossil fuels, so many of the solutions are the same. Toxic air disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, so addressing it will reduce health inequalities. And because it severely hampers productivity, cognitive performance and wellbeing, initiatives that clean the air will provide economic benefits. 

So, national and city governments should recognise an economic opportunity to join the dots and use action on clean air as a catalyst for sustainable growth, which also helps mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

This report takes a sample of six large and fast-expanding African cities: Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Yaoundé. It uses analysis from Dalberg Advisors to present a snapshot of key health, environmental and financial costs assuming a “business as usual” trajectory to 2040. It then contrasts this with an indicative scenario in which the cities adopt a set of clean air measures. 

Based on this analysis, our report suggests that on their current path, some of Africa’s fastest-growing cities will see the financial costs of air pollution increase more than eightfold by 2040. On the flipside, these cities – and others like them – could unlock billions of dollars with policies and planning that enable green growth. The financial efficiencies would be accompanied by multiple other benefits like fewer deaths, reduced burden of disease, lower emissions and reduced poverty. 

This data visualisation shows the estimated outcomes from measures such as upgrading public transport, introducing cleaner cookstoves and cleaner industrial technology, and making land clearance and waste management more environmentally-friendly. It estimates the economic benefits each city could reap from improving life expectancy and reducing working days lost to the health effects of air pollution.

Use the arrows to navigate through these 6 key findings:

Between them, the cities could save at least 109,000 lives, unlock  $19.2bn and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 18% between 2023 and 2040. While these numbers are significant, the true benefits are likely to be higher, because they omit the positive effects of reducing air pollution’s impact on health care, agricultural production, productivity, and the environment.

A note on our numbers

These numbers are only indicative of the scale of the problem. Further research is needed to robustly quantify these findings using best practice modelling approaches. The projected benefits from air quality action are expressed in this study in financial terms, but these financialised benefits should not be understood to mean tangible funds raised or costs saved. The co-benefits gained from air quality action provide greater cost-effectiveness that recycles into local economies, strengthening health systems, businesses and government finances. For further explanation of the methodology behind and limitations of this approach, please read the methodological annex pdf.

Implications for the whole continent and beyond

These findings have wider implications than these six cities. In September 2023, Africa Climate Week and the Africa Climate Summit were hosted in Nairobi ahead of COP28. These events formed part of the first global stocktake on progress against the Paris Agreement’s key goals. 

The case for connecting such action with air pollution reduction has never been stronger. Influential studies highlight that current climate finance across Africa falls far short of its adaptation and mitigation needs, and calls for a massive uptick in outside investment. Clean Air Fund research published ahead of COP26 in Glasgow shows that action on climate change can be achieved more cheaply, quickly, and fairly by prioritising solutions that also deliver cleaner air. 

Meanwhile the 2022 IPCC report on climate mitigation showed that the financial value of health benefits from improving air quality alone would far exceed the costs of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

The significant benefits to human health, the environment and other social and economic advantages outlined in this report will help Africa achieve the goals of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, a “master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future”.

Clean air is not a named goal of Agenda 2063, the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development or the UNFCCC’s Paris agreements. But it is critical to achieving most of their targets. 

In 2022, the UN General Assembly declared access to a healthy environment a basic human right. As with air pollution, the climate calculations are particularly stark for African economies. The continent is warming faster than the global average, despite contributing less than 3% to total global greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of this, recent Clean Air Fund research shows that only 5% of total aid funding for reducing air pollution is directed at Africa. Perversely, from 2015-2021, donor governments spent 36 times more aid on prolonging fossil fuel use in Africa than tackling air pollution. 

This plays into a topical debate around how developing economies are supported to transition away from the fossil fuel-led development that will destroy their futures, without missing out on growth opportunities the richer world benefited from. 

The economic fundamentals of such calculations are shifting fast. Research finds that renewable energy is now a cheaper option than fossil fuels, and could save the world as much as $12tn by 2050. Measures that shift away from fossil fuels increasingly make economic sense on their own terms, and will also provide solutions to air pollution. Acting on this evidence is a matter of political choice and leadership from governments, donors, funders and investors.

This report sets out the case for urban planning and national policies that prioritise clean air as an engine for fast, fair and sustainable growth in powerhouses like Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Yaoundé. City leaders working on this agenda closely with national and regional institutions will also contribute substantially to wider efforts to fight climate change and position nations to thrive in a low-carbon future. 

Key recommendations

  • National governments must integrate efforts to address air pollution as a priority in national climate action, health and sustainable development plans. These plans should come with clear tasks, timelines and clear mandates and targets for different levels of governments and departments. As a priority, governments should review high-emitting sectors such as energy, transport, industrial, and power production to identify ways to reduce air pollution and make data quality and management investments to ensure policy responses are evidence-based. Governments should also prioritise building collaborative governance structures, effective partnership models, and technical capacity and expertise to ensure policies are implemented, enforced and adequately financed.
  • Cities should prioritize implementing C40’s integrated planning framework and committing to the Clean Air Cities Declaration to achieve improved climate, air quality, and health outcomes. By conducting ground-level pollution attribution and deploying low-cost air quality monitoring devices, cities can gain a comprehensive understanding of PM2.5 concentrations and sources and take evidence-based decisions. Reviewing high-emitting sectors and adopting city-specific interventions are crucial for effective air pollution reduction. Local governments should establish relationships with NGOs and international partners to arrange relevant technical training and develop local expertise. Additionally, they should work together to secure funding for pilot projects and subsequently scale proven interventions for city-wide impact.
  • Funders should take a joined-up approach to climate and air pollution, taking into account the numerous health and economic co-benefits of clean air in funding considerations. Funders can also support through the provision of technical assistance for green fund applications, easing data criteria, and establishing dedicated funds for air quality monitoring capacities. This should be accompanied by an increase in Official Development Assistance and grant-based funding for air quality programs – which could be achieved by redirecting funds from investments and subsidies for fossil fuels towards air quality. Funders need to collaborate with recipient governments to ensure there is sufficient funds to sustain and scale successful projects.
  • Governments and cities, with support from funders, should use air quality data and support health research to advance understanding of the health impacts of air pollution, especially on babies and children, and the associated avoidable costs to health systems, communities and people most affected. Ensure air quality interventions are designed to maximise health benefits.

See our full recommendations for African governments, city mayors and other local government leaders across Africa, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC), donors and multilateral development banks, philanthropic foundations and research groups, private sector organisations, regional bodies and civil society organisations.

Go to next section: 1. Context: challenges and opportunities

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