Improving Public Health in Africa Through Climate Change Action

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights how African countries can simultaneously address climate change and improve public health by reducing air pollution.

In many cases, these actions also have other societal, economic, environmental, or health benefits.

Air pollution: a silent killer


(Photo : HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images)

Air pollution is one of the major environmental risk factors for human health, causing an estimated 7 million premature deaths worldwide every year.

In Africa, air pollution is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths annually, mainly from household air pollution, ambient particulate matter pollution, and ozone pollution.

Household air pollution is caused by the burning of solid fuels, such as wood, charcoal, coal, and dung, for cooking and heating.

This practice exposes millions of people, especially women and children, to high levels of smoke and toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

These pollutants can cause respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.

Ambient particulate matter pollution, on the other hand, is the mixture of solid and liquid particles of different sizes and compositions that are suspended in the air.

It can originate from various sources, such as vehicles, industries, power plants, fires, dust storms, and volcanoes.

PM2.5, the smallest and most harmful particles, can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation, oxidative stress, and damage to the organs and tissues. Exposure to PM2.5 can increase the risk of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

Meanwhile, ozone pollution is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight and heat.

It is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. Ozone can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and damage the lining of the lungs, leading to reduced lung function, asthma attacks, and chronic respiratory diseases.

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Co-benefits: a win-win solution

The report by WHO and UNEP identifies several measures that can reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Africa, while also providing co-benefits for health, environment, and development. These measures include:

  •  Promoting clean and efficient cooking and heating solutions, such as improved stoves, biogas, solar cookers, and electric induction stoves. This can reduce household air pollution, improve indoor air quality, and save time and money for households. It can also reduce deforestation, land degradation, and carbon emissions.
  •  Improving public transport and non-motorized mobility, such as buses, trains, bicycles, and walking. This can reduce traffic congestion, road accidents, noise pollution, and fuel consumption. It can also improve physical activity, cardiovascular health, and mental well-being.
  •  Increasing the share of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal. This can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower electricity costs, and increase energy access and security. It can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and water consumption.
  •  Implementing energy efficiency measures, such as LED lighting, insulation, and smart meters. This can reduce energy demand, lower electricity bills, and improve comfort and productivity. It can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and peak load demand.
  •  Enhancing waste management and circular economy, such as recycling, composting, and biogas production. This can reduce waste generation, landfill emissions, and environmental contamination. It can also generate income, create jobs, and improve soil quality and crop yields.

The report estimates that implementing these measures could prevent more than 300,000 premature deaths per year in Africa by 2030, and more than 1.2 million by 2050, compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

It could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% by 2030, and more than 70% by 2050, compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

Challenges and opportunities

The report acknowledges that there are many barriers and challenges to implementing these measures in Africa, such as lack of awareness, data, capacity, finance, and governance.

It also recognizes that there are trade-offs and uncertainties involved, such as social, economic, and environmental impacts, and the need for context-specific and participatory approaches.

However, the report also highlights the opportunities and benefits of these measures, such as improved health and well-being, enhanced resilience and adaptation, increased economic growth and employment, and reduced poverty and inequality.

It also provides examples of successful initiatives and best practices from different African countries, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa.

The report calls for urgent and coordinated action from governments, development partners, civil society, the private sector, and communities to scale up these measures and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

It also urges for more research, monitoring, and evaluation to assess the impacts and co-benefits of these measures and to inform policy and practice.

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