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Lagos and air pollution

From pollution to solution in Africa's cities: The case for investing in air pollution and climate change together

With a population of over 15 million, Lagos is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest city and accounts for 12% of Nigeria’s total population. The continent’s third fastest growing city is projected to become the world’s largest by the end of the century at current rates.

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Lagos contributes 26.7% of Nigeria’s GDP, with an annual urban growth rate of 5.8%. The Lagos State government reported its 2018 GDP as 29 trillion Naira (or $70 billion), making it Africa’s seventh largest economy. Lagos is also the financial hub of the country. 

Air pollution caused by traffic and congestion, biomass fuel burning and shipping is a major threat to sustainable growth. The annual average PM2.5 concentration in Nigeria in 2019 was 14.1 times greater than WHO 2021 recommended concentration levels

As with other cities, reducing air pollution and the resulting health impacts would likely bring down employee absenteeism, presenteeism, and attrition. This should reduce the number of ‘white-collar’ employees seeking employment in alternative cities.

The trade and manufacturing sectors in Lagos state employ 53% of the total work force in Nigeria. High air pollution worsens these workers’ quality of life and will hinder Lagos in realising its economic potential as a manufacturing and startup hub in Africa. Reducing air pollution should have the opposite effect, increasing the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector and attracting investment that might otherwise go elsewhere. 

Lagos state is the richest in Nigeria, but has high levels of inequality, with 4.5% of households in 2018-2019 below the national poverty line. Despite the city’s growing number of glossy apartment buildings, most residents live in informal housing, many in the expanding numbers of informal settlements throughout the city. 65% of residents work in the informal sector. Lagos’ growing urban population is increasingly exposed to the multiple harms caused by air pollution, especially in terms of declining health and ability to earn a living. 

In 2019, air pollution was responsible for 70,000 deaths, yet the country received just $0.25m official development funding directly or indirectly targeting the problem between 2015-2020.

Major sources of air pollution


Road transport stands out as a key source of PM2.5 in Lagos (32%), primarily due to the high numbers of old cars (with high sulphur content in imported diesel and gasoline fuel) and limited transportation options in the city. There are only 1.3 km of intra-city rail/million people, far less than in other megacities, whilst commuters spend an average of 30 hours per week in traffic. 

The government has taken some recent steps to limit emissions, for example revising sulphur fuel standards to 50 parts per million (ppm) for petrol and diesel, a year after the UN deadline in 2018. Local refineries are now mandated to upgrade their operations to meet these new requirements and comply with other fuel parameters, such as benzene and manganese. Meanwhile all imported vehicles must comply with tighter emissions restrictions and vehicles of over 10 years will be forbidden. These actions are welcome, but significantly more will be required to reduce projected increases in harmful air pollution.

Lagos has the shortest public transport rail system relative to other megacities of its size (1.3km per million people). A new Lagos Rail Mass Transit Red Line project is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2023 with a daily capacity of 0.5-1 million people. This is anticipated to encourage a significant shift to public transport, but will not lift Lagos from the cities with least public transport capacity until the government commissions additional rail lines and other alternative transport solutions.

Biomass fuel burning 

Biomass fuels account for around a fifth of Lagos’ PM 2.5 concentrations (19%) with solid fuels still widely used, particularly by lower-income households. Around 50% of household energy demand is currently met by inefficient diesel and gasoline generators. Investment to increase electrification, remove subsidies on biomass fuels, and raise awareness of the health risks of air pollution can play a role in improving indoor air quality in Lagos. Despite a 2015 ban on the import of small diesel generators due to government concerns over rising air pollution, the annual value of Nigeria’s generator market rose from more than $51m to $450m by 2020. 

Other sources of air pollution

There are multiple other sources of air pollution in Lagos. Poor waste management facilities across the city lead to open burning and illegal disposal, raising the city’s PM2.5 concentration (9%). Of the estimated 14,000 tonnes of waste collected in Lagos State daily, over 30% is dumped at illegal sites, and much more is thought to be burned even before collection. Despite only 30% of total available land in Lagos being cultivated (51,000 ha), land clearing through bush burning is widely practised (5% of PM2.5 levels). 70% of Nigeria’s industries are in Lagos, but fewer than 10% of those have installed proper treatment facilities. For example, metallic smelting companies contribute 9% of all emissions in the city. Sea salt, dust and shipping emissions also contribute to pollution levels.

Health and financial impact of air pollution in Lagos

In 2019, around 23,900 premature deaths were attributable to air pollution in Lagos. At the country level, premature deaths from air pollution (198,000) exceeded those from malaria (191,000) and was more than double those caused by HIV/AIDS (82,000).

The graphic above shows the financial cost of air pollution-related premature mortality and absenteeism in 2019, and the projected impacts under a business-as-usual scenario. It also shows what can be achieved by implementing the indicative clean air measures.

Impact of clean air policies that reduce air pollution and GHG emissions

In 2040 alone, these steps could unlock more than $1.7bn – around 17% of Lagos’ costs from air pollution under the business-as-usual scenario. More importantly, in that year, close to 3,500 deaths could be averted and GHG emissions reduced by at least 26% (35MT of CO2 equivalent). 

The cumulative impact of the levers on air pollution in Lagos from 2023-2040 could save the city ~$12bn, which equates to 65% of Nigeria’s public spending on health care in 2021 ($18.6bn). A further 50,000 deaths could be reduced, as well as GHG emissions abated by 362Mt of CO2e, equivalent to ~85% of Nigeria’s current yearly GHG emissions.

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