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Roya Sabri headshot

Researchers Note Falling Air Pollution in Northern Africa, Even As Economies Grow

“The traditional paradigm is that as middle and low-income countries grow you often see more emissions, and to see a different kind of trajectory is very interesting,” the study's lead author told The New York Times.
By Roya Sabri
africa urbanization air pollution

Image: Although urban transit is growing in cities like Lagos, Nigeria, pictured here, research indicates air pollution levels in booming northern Africa may not be what you'd expect. 

Air quality is improving in north equatorial Africa, even as the region urbanizes and increases its dependence on fossil fuels, a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found.

“The traditional paradigm is that as middle and low-income countries grow you often see more emissions, and to see a different kind of trajectory is very interesting,” Jonathan Hickman, a researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and lead author on the study, told The New York Times. “It’s nice to see a decline occurring when you’d expect to see pollution increasing.”

So if fossil fuel use is up, what's driving the downward trajectory in air pollution? Like in many other parts of the world, farmers in north equatorial Africa — one of the continent's fastest growing regions that includes Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda — often set fires to clear land between planting seasons. As economies grew in recent years, the number of fires set by farmers declined, offsetting upticks in air pollution from other sources like transportation, the research found. 

As agricultural vegetation fires decreased, so did nitrogen dioxide emissions, which can form acid rain and harm human health. Through satellite observations, the researchers noted a 4.5 percent decline in nitrogen dioxide concentrations during the northern region’s fire season between 2005 and 2017. This lower fire-related pollution correlated to rising mean GDP density in the region. 

A net improvement to air quality is a promising discovery when the African population is expected to double by 2050 and fossil fuels are projected to continue to fuel two-thirds of the continent’s electricity needs beyond 2030. 

The study authors note that the observed improvement to air quality is only present during the dry season of November through February and may be lost as nations increase their reliance on fossil fuels. Africa’s share of 4 percent of global carbon emissions may very well grow if economies do not continue to adjust to cleaner methods of industrial activity and energy production. 

The need for continued pollution reduction in Africa

Despite Africa’s minimal contribution to global greenhouse gases, the continent faces severe consequences if global emissions continue to grow. Up to 48 percent of Africa's GDP could be vulnerable to extreme climate patterns by 2023, global risk analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft projects. 

The continent hasn’t yet tapped into the breadth of its renewable energy potential. With US$70 billion in annual investment, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that clean renewable and indigenous sources could meet just about a quarter of African energy needs by 2030. In the process of this energy transition, global gross domestic product would increase by 1.1 percent. 

As a whole, Africa’s current state of energy investment still favors non-renewable sources — almost 70 percent of energy investments in 2018 went to fossil fuels — but some countries are making headway toward a renewable future. Morocco, for example, has built the largest concentrated solar facility in the world as part of a push to achieve a 52 percent renewable energy mix by 2030. 

Not only can renewable energy guide the continent toward meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement, but it can also bring energy equity to remote reaches. For example, today around 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity. As the region builds energy infrastructure, it has an opportunity to build clean at the outset. The National Geographic outlines the abundant natural resources available in the region: In addition to plentiful sun all around, South Africa has prime land for wind farms, and Zimbabwe overflows with water that can be used for hydropower.

Africa faces the most extreme predicted consequences of climate change. Even though the continent — bigger than China, India, the contiguous United States and most of Europe combined — only contributes a handful of percentage points to global greenhouse gas pollution, it has a significant part to play in achieving global climate goals. Economic empowerment may have a part to play in that process — renewables will likely claim an even larger role. 

Image credit: Joshua Oluwagbemiga/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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