Africa has an air pollution problem – but lacks the data to tackle it

Another smoggy day in Abidjan. Image: Getty.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched BreatheLife, a campaign to make people more aware about the fact that air pollution – which it calls the invisible killer – is a major health and climate risk.

“Invisible” may refer to the lack of awareness that air pollution is a major health risk. In fact, air pollution levels exceeding the WHO air quality guidelines are often very visible, particularly in developing countries. This is especially true for billions of people living in close contact with air pollution sources. Those who, for example, cook on inefficient stoves with fuels such as coal. Or live in an industrial area.

The WHO has air quality programmes for most of the world’s regions. These review the effects of air pollution on health and help countries develop sustainable air quality policies. But none exists for sub-Saharan Africa. It is not clear why. A possible explanation may be that environmental health risk factors are overshadowed by other risks like malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Despite this, we do know something about the continent’s air pollution levels. In the first major attempt to estimate the health and economic costs of air pollution in Africa, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report found that air pollution in Africa already causes more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition. It warned that this could develop into a health and climate crisis.

But how bad are air pollution levels in Africa? Which countries have the worst air pollution levels? What are the main sources and drivers of air pollution? Are the main sources and drivers of air pollution different from those on other continents?

The answers to these questions are severely hampered by a lack of data as well as poor regulation and laws in African countries. The only country on the continent that has ambient air quality standards enforced by air quality laws and regulations is South Africa. Other countries have either ambient air quality standards or air quality laws and regulations, or none at all.

What’s known

Air pollution is a complex mixture of many components.

The WHO’s air quality guidelines, as well as country-specific laws, have identified a few air pollutant components: particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometer (PM2.5) and 10 micrometer (PM10) in aerodynamic diameter, sulphur dioxide (SO2), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene, lead and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The most dangerous are PM2.5 and ultrafine particles (UFP); the latter are smaller than 100 nanometer in aerodynamic diameter. PM2.5 and UFP penetrate deeper into the lung alveoli and may pass into the bloodstream. PM10 and PM2.5 are important indicators of long-term air quality and of health risks.

Based on data of ground measurements conducted in 2008-2015, Africa’s PM10 levels are not the highest in the world.

The database is the largest of its kind and covers over 3,000 human settlements – mostly cities – in 103 countries. The number one spot belongs to the Eastern Mediterranean region, followed by the South-East Asia region and then Africa. But the WHO acknowledges numerous limitations to the data sources. Fewer sites globally measure PM2.5, hence the focus is on PM10.

The PM2.5 data based on the WHO air quality model show that the number one spot again belongs to the Eastern Mediterranean region, followed by the South-East Asia region and then Africa. Given the lack of PM2.5 ground measurements in Africa, the PM2.5 data derived from the WHO air quality model for Africa should be viewed with caution.

Where is the air worse in Africa?

It is hard to say what the real picture is. The modelled PM2.5 data supplements the data from ground monitoring networks, especially in regions with no or very little monitoring, as is the case in Africa.

The PM10 data, based on ground measurements conducted between 2008 and 2015, show that all African countries with PM10 data exceeded the WHO annual guideline of 20 microgram/cubic meter (µg/m³).

Onitsha in Nigeria had the highest yearly PM10 level of 594 µg/m³ globally, nearly 30 times higher than the WHO annual guideline. But the quality of the data is questionable. The level for Onitsha is based on PM10 data collected only in 2009 and only at one site. The database also does not mention on how many days the 2009 yearly level is based as missing data can lead to a distorted yearly level. The lowest yearly PM10 level was recorded at Midlands in Mauritius (20 µg/m³). But this is based only on 2011 data collected again at only one site without mention of how many days in 2011 were measured.

It is also difficult to know exactly what the contribution of different sources of air pollution are in Africa.

The amount of air pollution in any given location is affected by a combination of local, regional and distant sources. It is also affected by the dispersion of pollutants, which in turn depends on numerous weather conditions such as wind direction, temperature and precipitation.

A recent review indicated that very few studies in Africa conducted source apportionment of PM2.5 and PM10. The review concluded that (based on the few studies) 17 per cent, 10 per cent, 34 per cent, 17 per cent and 22 per cent of PM2.5 levels in Africa are due to traffic, industry, domestic fuel burning, unspecified source of human origin and natural sources - such as dust and sea salt. For PM10 the corresponding source distribution is 34 per cent, 6 per cent, 21 per cent, 14 per cent and 25 per cent, but should be viewed with caution due to the few studies.

Based on the limited number of PM10 and PM2.5 source apportionment studies in Africa, these tentative conclusions can be drawn. Traffic is a major source of PM10 levels in Africa as in many other global regions. The other two major sources of PM10 in Africa are domestic fuel burning and natural sources. In other regions of the world, industry and the ambiguous “unspecified source of human origin” contribute more.

Domestic fuel burning is the major source of PM2.5 in Africa, followed by traffic and natural sources such as dust. In other regions of the world, traffic, industry and the ambiguous “unspecified source of human origin” contribute more to PM2.5 levels.

Air quality interventions

Regardless of the exact global source contributions, the main sources of air pollution should be tackled globally in management plans and interventions.

Obvious interventions include clean energy technology such as solar power, to minimise domestic fuel burning and emissions from coal-fired power plants. Other initiatives include clean public transport, bicycle lanes to cut traffic emissions, recycling and controls on industrial emissions.

Air pollution does not stop at country or continental borders. It is a major risk factor for climate change. A disregard for air pollution levels in Africa may have a major impact on global climate change in the years to come.The Conversation

Janine Wichmann is associate professor at the University of Pretoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The stench of unfinished business: how George Osborne’s financial reforms pose a threat to local government

A perfectly normal picture of George Osborne. Image: Getty.

The year is 2015. Local government minister Kris Hopkins is asked to explain the growing gaps between council’s spending powers. He answers by claiming the government has been fair to all parts of the country, concluding: “There is no magic money tree.”

Amidst all the unfortunate political developments of the last few years, the entry of this phrase into the popular lexicon is particularly depressing. Deployed liberally by commentators to whom sorcery, macroeconomics and botany are all patently perplexing, its prolific spread belies its analytical redundancy.

Where it does come into its own is as a tool of political doublethink – as can be seen in the matter of council expenditure. Hopkins raised the spectre of mystical foliage, knowing the formulation of local government finance left some authorities languishing under the weight of austerity (Knowsley was over £400 per head worse off at this point compared to 2011) while others had seen their spending power miraculously increase (like Elmbridge in Surrey). But it was wheeled out anyway: relieving the stragglers was unfeasible, anyone saying otherwise was a spendthrift.

Financial inequality between councils was a problem two years ago. Now disparities in their revenues are well into the realm of the ridiculous, and running further apart all the time. The question is: why?

Coalition cuts had been eating away at council budgets long before 2015. But, after the Conservatives gained a slim majority that year, the issue took on a new intensity. This can all be traced back to then-Chancellor George Osborne, two elections and (roughly) four jobs ago, when he came up with a bold scheme to overhaul local government funding.

His plan was to empower councils by allowing them to set and keep 100 per cent of business rates. The only downside to this sweet deal was that the Revenue Support Grant, worth £18bn, would be phased out over the following five years. It was all part of Osborne’s devolutionary bonanza against the backdrop of the fabled Northern Powerhouse.

A few problems stuck out with this scheme. In the short run, it would very likely cement existing inequalities between councils. Poor authorities rely the most on central grants, rich authorities contain wealthier businesses – thus the latter would rake in revenues while the former’s ebbed away.

To tackle this problem, a system of top ups and transfers remained in place to make up shortfalls for poorer councils. But these would be frozen, reducing their value over time and allowing already growing councils to tear ahead. In the longer run, the new setup could spark a race to the bottom as councils competitively cut rates in an effort to attract enterprise, piling further pressure on balance sheets.

Despite these drawbacks, it was a system that would have gone some way towards remedying the UK’s status as one of the OECD’s most centralised nations. But when Osborne eloped to the Evening Standard, he left a most unpleasant stench behind him: the stench of unfinished business.

By June of this year councils found themselves in limbo. Fiscal devolution was missing from the post-election Queen’s Speech (although there have been some pilot schemes), but cuts to central grants remained on schedule. Whether this is attributed to incompetence or pure evil, the result is the same: almost half of councils will receive no central funding by 2020, leading to a black hole estimated at £5.8bn by the Local Government Association.

On top of everything else, Brexit looms largest over particularly impoverished areas. Investment from European structural funds, worth around £8.4bn between 2014-20, have been thrown into doubt. The Treasury has promised to match all pre-Brexit investment agreements on the dubious condition that they are “in line with UK priorities”. Presumably these are only the most important and essential priorities, like shoving hundreds of millions at Conservative authorities to ease the pain of funding cuts as in 2016.

With the poorest councils most reliant on grants, inequality between authorities will deepen significantly without decisive action. Does Theresa May even know all this is going on? Between leaving the EU and trying not to get stabbed in the back, she has plenty of other worries occupying her time. Assuming she finds a spare moment and/or some political astuteness, how might she deal with the impending crisis?

One choice would be to get on with the reforms as they were initially intended: not ideal, perhaps, but at least allowing councils to keep their business rates would get the ball of devolution rolling again. This could be an important precursor to reversing unchecked inequality.

Empowering councils to borrow to deal with their most pressing problems (like housing) or promoting local finance initiatives like community banks would do more to put authorities on an even footing than piecemeal proposals like fiddling about with council taxes (which still disproportionately benefit wealthier areas).

Alternative inspiration could come from abroad. In Sweden, a redistribution grant kicks in whenever a local authority’s takings fall below a set threshold, partly funded by the highest earning areas. In France, large cities are in charge of their own transport provision, funded through specific business taxes. Firms’ contributions therefore give them a direct stake in infrastructural development. The Centre for Cities’ Beyond Business Rates report suggests different areas could use such powers to deal with local challenges – for example, housing in London and Oxford.

A more comprehensive solution would be out-and-out federalism. Highly unlikely, but potentially appealing: just imagine how much more time the Cabinet could spend on not sorting out Brexit if prosperity was a completely devolved matter. Giving regions complete control over their own affairs would at least mean the government could stop bothering with changes which manage to be both trifling and Kafkaesque.

None of these options are perfect. But all have a lot to recommend them, when the alternative is simply forgetting you were in the middle of overhauling local government funding, the Conservatives’ current strategy of choice.

The magic money tree is very much alive, contrary to Hopkins’ claims (and unlike his political career). It is burgeoning in Britain’s richest councils thanks to coalition cuts and two years of haphazard reform. These reforms need to be seriously reexamined, and soon – or the poorest areas will take the biggest hit.

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