Coal mining, oil industries among main sources of increasing air pollution in Africa – study

Arnot coal-fired power station in Middelburg, South Africa. (Image by Gerhard Roux, Wikimedia Commons).

A recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience presents evidence that shows that the burning of biomass fuel for cooking, heating, and lighting, the crude oil exploitation and coal mining industries, as well as old vehicles being shipped in from Europe are causing severe deterioration of air quality in African countries.

According to the article, particulate matter concentration levels in many African cities are now five to 10 levels greater than that recommended by the World Health Organization, with the situation predicted to worsen as populations grow and industrialization accelerates.

The study, authored by researchers from the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, South Eastern Kenya University and the African Center for Clean Air, notes that far too little has been done to try and combat the dangerous air quality with just 0.01% of global air pollution funding currently spent in Africa.

“This dangerous air can cause complex and sometimes deadly health issues for those breathing it in. If this wasn’t enough of a reason to tackle this issue, air pollution in Africa is not just a problem for people living on the continent, but for the wider world, limiting the ability to meet global climate targets and combat the climate emergency,” Francis Pope, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a media statement.

Given this state of affairs, Pope and colleagues call for urgent collaboration on continuous air monitoring via a network of sensors in order to build a detailed picture of air pollution variations and track progress and investment in clean energy such as solar, hydropower and wind to meet Africa’s energy demand which is expected to double by 2040.

They also point to the urgency of improved solid waste management to prevent dumping and burning of waste and improve reuse, recycling, and recovery rates, as well as investment in environmentally friendly technology to ensure African countries can grow economically while avoiding dirty and obsolete technology from the Global North.

Finally, they say it is crucial to push for infrastructure improvements to curb emissions from the transport sector, improving public transport provision and adopting higher emission standards for fuel and imported vehicles.

“Air pollution is complex and multifaceted with different sources and patterns within society,” Gabriel Okello, co-author of the study, said. “This should be catalyzed by increased investment in interventions that are addressing air pollution. Africa has the opportunity to leverage the growing political will and tap into the young population to accelerate action towards the five broad suggestions in our paper.”