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Blog 27 October 2022

Africa’s cities: an economic, health and environmental crisis

Mohammed Adjei Sowah
The former Mayor of Accra reflects on the overlooked health, environmental and economic crisis facing Africa's cities.

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. 

As Mayor of Accra, I saw firsthand the impacts of air pollution on the city. The damage to people’s health and the environment from open waste burning and road vehicle congestion had become obvious. Tackling this needs to be balanced with the city’s development needs. The shift to a more sustainable source of energy is an important goal for cities, but achieving this is a challenging process for city authorities. 

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. 

That’s why Clean Air Fund’s latest report – Pollution to solution in Africa’s cities – is so important. 

Not only does it underline the consequences of continuing on the current trajectory – for the health of city dwellers in African cities, for economies and for the environment – it shows another way is possible and makes sense. 

The timing is excellent as world leaders will soon gather for the “African COP”, which will focus heavily on how we build our economies whilst managing a climate crisis we did not cause. We need a just transition agreement, however the report shows that doubling down on fossil fuels will not give us the answers we are looking for on our own terms. Looking at some of the continent’s fastest-growing cities – Lagos, Johannesburg, and Cairo alongside my home city of Accra – it shows – a business-as-usual pathway will severely damage our cities’ economies, the health of our citizens and carbon reduction efforts. 

Those findings present a grave picture, but that is only part of the story. 

The research also shows that tackling air pollution alongside wider climate change mitigation action can be a gamechanger in how we plan to grow our cities for the benefit of all citizens – reducing dirty traffic, cleaning the way we cook, heat our homes and power our growing industries. These are exciting economic proposals that also work to improve our health and green our cities. 

Talk of win-win can feel lazy and misleading, but these proposals are the real deal. The findings give city and national governments the building blocks for smart urban planning. With a concerted effort to implement clean air policies, these cities could make huge gains across these areas, saving lives, bolstering local economies, and dramatically reducing their environmental impact whilst developing sustainably.

These measures will be part of the way in which Africa’s great cities help shape our future, but we need our development partners’ support to get there. Funders who want to invest in solutions which tick several policy and development boxes at once need look no further.  

The benefits of doing the things outlined in this report, would be monumental and the costs of doing nothing, unthinkable. It is time to seize the moment. 

See more

Cost of air pollution in Africa’s cities to increase 600% by 2040, without urgent action

Our latest research reveals how air pollution impacts Africa’s fastest growing cities. Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg and Accra could save 125,000 lives, unlock $20 billion and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

The State of Global Air Quality Funding 2022

The only snapshot of global funding to tackle air pollution in Africa during 2015-2021.