Air pollution imposes a heavy and growing burden on health for much of Africa’s population. Millions of people on the diverse continent of Africa suffer severe illnesses and early death each year because of long-term exposure to air pollution. The impacts on babies and young children are of particular concern, with air pollution accounting for a large portion of deadly respiratory infections and other conditions that prevent so many from reaching their fifth birthday.
The fact that much of this burden is potentially avoidable is tragic and yet gives hope that action for clean air can save lives and improve health across the continent. The tragedy is in the devastating magnitude of the loss of life and the persistently high air pollution levels across much of the continent. As countries continue to experience high levels of air pollution and growing and aging populations, this burden will increase.
Although improvements in treatment for those already suffering from heart disease and other noncommunicable diseases will play a key role, aggressive strategies are needed to prevent new cases of noncommunicable diseases by tackling their major risk factors (e.g., high blood pressure, smoking, and air pollution) because healthcare access continues to be limited or unaffordable in many cases. The hope lies in the possibility that change may be on the horizon.
Energy, Development, and Air Pollution
Countries across the African continent are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of household air pollution mitigation due to the potential for substantial health and equity gains. A lack of access to clean energy for cooking and heating can hinder economic growth and development, underscoring the need to scale up energy production as well as energy access in many countries across Africa.
In 2019, Africa had one of the lowest energy access rates in the world with fewer than one in 20 people who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, Uganda, and Tanzania having access to clean fuels for cooking. However, access to clean energy is not equitably distributed, leading to larger disease burdens in certain areas.
The increasing demand for energy solutions has resulted in some progress in reducing household air pollutions through cleaner stove initiatives, LPG programs, and energy expansion policies that have increased the size and capability of urban electrical grids.
The solution to addressing household air pollution may seem simple and its impact clearly evident: improve access to clean cooking and thus improve health. Furthermore, reducing use of solid fuels for cooking can also help reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals outlines the importance of “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
Specifically in the continent, Agenda 2063 lays out a strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development for all residents. In working toward these goals, it is important to consider how energy transitions can be designed to be efficient, economically feasible, sustainable, and environmentally friendly—a complex challenge that requires a nuanced conversation at the nexus of energy, climate, air quality, and health.
Excerpt of: Health Effects Institute. 2022. The State of Air Quality and Health Impacts in Africa. A Report from the State of Global Air Initiative. Boston, MA:Health Effects Institute. 2022