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Africa/Global: Air Pollution Threats & Solutions

AfricaFocus Bulletin
June 30, 2016 (160630)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Around 6.5 million deaths are attributed each year to poor air quality, making this the world’s fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. Without changes to the way that the world produces and uses energy, the ruinous toll from air pollution on human life is set to rise. ... Household air pollution, closely linked to a lack of access to modern energy services, causes around half a million premature deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa, where four-fifths of the population rely on the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking, and candles and kerosene lamps are extensively used for indoor lighting." - International Energy Agency (IEA)

In a scenario based on current and anticipated trends and policies, the IEA estimates that deaths due to household air pollution in Africa may decrease by 110,000 by 2040. However, due to economic growth, urbanization, and automobile emissions, outdoor air pollution may rise from 300,000 to 450,000 over the same period. Overall, there will be a deterioration in air quality, unless alternative new policies are adopted for a "Clean Air Scenario".

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts taken from the executive summary of the new report, as well as Chapter 2 on the Clean Air Scenario and Chapter 10 on the situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on climate change and the environment, and a set of talking points, visit

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Energy and Air Pollution

World Energy Outlook Special Report

International Energy Agency, June 2016 / Direct URL:

Executive Summary (excerpts)

Air pollution is a major public health crisis, with many of its root causes and cures to be found in the energy sector. Around 6.5 million deaths are attributed each year to poor air quality, making this the world’s fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. Without changes to the way that the world produces and uses energy, the ruinous toll from air pollution on human life is set to rise.

That is why this World Energy Outlook (WEO) Special Report is dedicated, for the first time, to the links between energy, air pollution and health. It sets out in detail the scale, causes and effects of the problem and the ways in which the energy sector can contribute to a solution. Energy production and use, mostly from unregulated, poorly regulated or inefficient fuel combustion, are the single most important man-made sources of air pollutant emissions: 85% of particulate matter and almost all of the sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides. These three pollutants are responsible for the most widespread impacts of air pollution, either directly or once transformed into other pollutants via chemical reactions in the atmosphere. They are emitted mainly as a result of:

  • Poverty: the wood and other solid fuels that more than 2.7 billion people use for cooking, and kerosene used for lighting (and in some countries also for cooking), create smoky environments that are associated with around 3.5 million premature deaths each year. These effects are felt mostly in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where incomplete burning of biomass accounts for more than half of emissions of particulate matter. Finer particles, whether inhaled indoors or outdoors, are particularly harmful to health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs.
  • Fossil fuel-intensive development and urbanisation: coal and oil have powered economic growth in many countries, but their unabated combustion in power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles is the main cause of the outdoor pollution linked to around 3 million premature deaths each year. Coal is responsible for around 60% of global combustion-related sulfur dioxide emissions – a cause of respiratory illnesses and a precursor of acid rain. Fuels used for transport, first and foremost diesel, generate more than half the nitrogen oxides emitted globally, which can trigger respiratory problems and the formation of other hazardous particles and pollutants, including ozone. Cities can easily become pollution hotspots, as they concentrate people, energy use, construction activity and traffic. The impact of urban vehicle emissions is heightened by the fact that they are discharged not from the top of tall chimneys but directly into the street-level air that pedestrians breathe.

Chapter 2

Outlook for air pollution : Towards blue skies?


  • The IEA has undertaken a first-of-a-kind assessment of the impact of energy and air pollution policies on air pollutant emissions through 2040. This World Energy Outlook Special Report finds that despite a global decline in emissions, existing and planned energy sector policies are not sufficient to improve air quality: in our central scenario, premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution increase to 4.5 million in 2040 (from around 3 million today), while premature deaths due to household air pollution fall to 2.9 million (from 3.5 million today).
  • The global results mask strong regional differences, which stem from the energy mix and the rigour of energy and air quality policies. In our central scenario, emissions continue to fall in industrialised countries, while in China, recent signs of decline are consolidated. Emissions generally rise in India, Southeast Asia and Africa, as expected growth in energy demand dwarfs policy efforts related to air quality. Poor air quality continues to affect the poorest most adversely: by 2040, 1.8 billion people still have no access to clean cooking devices (from 2.7 billion today), exposing mostly women and children to harmful household air pollution. The policies with the most impact on reducing emissions include those that increase access to modern energy services in developing countries, improve energy efficiency, promote fuel diversification and control air pollutant emissions.
  • The outlook for air quality is a policy choice to be made: new energy and air quality policies can deliver cleaner air. This is why the IEA proposes the Clean Air Scenario that builds on proven and pragmatic energy and air quality policies and uses only existing technologies. Their implementation provides citizens with cleaner air and better health. In the Clean Air Scenario, premature deaths from outdoor air pollution fall to 2.8 million in 2040 and from household air pollution to 1.3 million. The benefits are largest in developing countries: the share of India’s population exposed to PM 2.5 concentrations above the least stringent WHO target falls to 18% in 2040 (from 62% today), while in China, it shrinks to 23% (from 56% today) and to almost zero in Indonesia and South Africa.
  • Achieving the benefits of the Clean Air Scenario depends upon implementation of a range of policies: access to clean cooking for all is essential to reduce the use of inefficient biomass cookstoves and associated PM 2.5 emissions. Emissions standards – strictly enforced – in road transport are central to reducing NO X emissions, in particular in cities. SO 2 emissions are brought down by controlling emissions and switching fuels in the power sector, and increasing energy efficiency in the industry sector. The additional investment needs are not insurmountable: cumulative investment in the Clean Air Scenario is 7% (or $4.8 trillion) higher than in the New Policies Scenario. The value of the resultant benefits is typically many times higher.

Chapter 10: Africa (excerpts)


  • Africa faces multiple developmental and environmental challenges, which are rooted in poverty and the source of a grave health burden on the population. Air pollution from the energy sector is increasingly a leading risk factor. Household air pollution, closely linked to a lack of access to modern energy services, causes around half a million premature deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa, where four-fifths of the population rely on the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking, and candles and kerosene lamps are extensively used for indoor lighting. Cities are becoming increasingly choked with vehicles which are unregulated by emission standards, by the use of back-up generators to mitigate the often absent or unreliable electricity supply, and the widespread burning of waste.

  • The outlook to 2040 for Africa in the New Policies Scenario [predicted on the basis of current & anticipated policies] is mixed. Even though there is a general absence of current policy measures to mitigate the adverse effects of air quality associated with the projected 75% rise in energy demand, which means that PM 2.5 emissions in Africa grow by almost a fifth by 2040, improvements in access to modern energy cause the annual number of premature deaths attributable to household pollution to decrease by 110 000.

    The share of the population relying on traditional cooking methods falls from 68% today to one-third by 2040, and the share of people without electricity access falls from 57% to 25%, bringing power to over one billion more people. Power generation is projected to almost triple over the period, with renewables (excluding biomass) providing one-third of generation by 2040, twice today’s share. Despite some improvements, however, strong population growth leaves 655 million people still without access to clean cooking, and half a billion people without electricity access, and as a result over 360 000 premature deaths are still attributable to household air pollution in 2040.

  • In the Clean Air Scenario, PM 2.5 emissions fall by more than 80% in 2040 relative to the New Policies Scenario, largely as a result of achieving universal access to energy. SO 2 is more than halved and NO X falls by three quarters relative to the New Policies Scenario because emission standards in transport, industry and power generation are introduced.

    This means that by 2040, 220 000 deaths are prevented annually from household air pollution compared with the New Policies Scenario. Overall primary energy demand decreases by one-quarter compared with the New Policies Scenario: energy is used more efficiently and the consumption of all fossil fuels is reduced, and as a result, CO 2 emissions in 2040 fall from 1.8 Gt in the New Policies Scenario to 1.5 Gt in 2040.

The energy and air quality context

Parts of Africa are experiencing relatively strong economic growth. The economic output of sub-Saharan Africa has doubled since 2000, but remains below that of Germany, despite the population being more than ten-times larger. Across the continent as a whole, gross domestic product per capita has increased by more than one-quarter over the past decade.

The population of the continent is rapidly growing and urbanising. Africa is expected to be home to around 22% of the global population by 2040, compared with 10% in 1971 and 16% today. Africa is today the world’s most rural continent (with only around 40% of the population living in urban areas), but it is one of the fastesturbanizing world regions – more than half of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2040.

Energy demand in Africa has risen by half since 2000 though percapita energy demand remains low at about one-third of the global average. The energy mix is dominated by biomass, which accounts for almost half of energy demand across Africa and has a share as high as three-quarters of the total in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa). Only one- third of the population of the continent has access to modern cooking fuels – a low level matched only in India – with biomass used extensively as a cooking fuel.

Electricity access is also the lowest in the world: around 635 million people, 57% of the population, do not have access to electricity today. Per-capita electricity consumption in Africa is one-fifth of the global average, with wide variations by country: while almost all North Africans have access to electricity, only one-third has access in sub-Saharan Africa, and this falls to just 17% when looking at the rural population. Nigeria alone has 96 million people without access to electricity. Those who do have access to electricity experience frequent blackouts – Nigeria experiences on average 33 power outages every month and rationing due to inadequate supply and ageing infrastructure (World Bank, 2016).

Demand outstrips electricity supply, resulting in the cost of electricity generation being significantly higher in many African countries than in other world regions (AfDB, 2013). Industrial activities are also compromised as a result of high prices. The many positive efforts to provide electricity access across the continent have not been sufficient to decrease the number of people without access to electricity; Africa is the only world region where the number of people without access to electricity has actually increased since 2000, despite a significant decrease in numbers in North African countries and some sub-Saharan countries, including South Africa, Gabon, Botswana and Ghana.

Fossil fuels dominate the production of electricity, accounting for more than 80% of total power supply. South Africa, which generates almost 60% of all the power generated in sub-Saharan Africa, derives 94% of its power from coal. South Africa also accounts for around 25% of total oil consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria for more than 20%, meaning that the remaining 40-plus countries collectively consume less oil than the Netherlands.

While there has been increasing international focus on delivering universal clean energy access, such as through the African Development Bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa, it is clear from the UN SE4All tracking that progress falls substantially short of what is required to attain clean energy access by 2030 (IEA and World Bank, 2015).

These characteristics – rising energy consumption, concentrating urban populations and persistent lack of energy access – have contributed to ever-increasing air pollution, household as well as outdoor. Around half a million premature deaths can be attributed to household air pollution in Africa today, a health problem which is closely related to the lack of access to modern forms of energy. The traditional use of biomass for cooking causes severe emissions of particulate matter (PM 2.5 ), as does the use of candles and kerosene for lighting. Kerosene, used by many households that do not have access to reliable electricity or alternative solutions, is the primary lighting fuel in around half of African countries and is also a grave source of fires and casualties in households (World Health Organisation, 2016); programmes such as SolarAid, GOGLA and Lighting Africa are promoting the use of solar lamps to help phase out the use of these lighting fuels.

Indeed, 7.5 million tonnes (Mt) of PM 2.5 are emitted annually in Africa today, of which almost three-quarters is from the burning of biomass indoors. Damage to air quality from these sources affects mostly the poorest population of Africa: while there is almost no dependence on the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking in North Africa, only one-fifth of sub-Saharan Africans have access to modern cooking fuels, leaving 755 million people to cook with solid biomass, typically with inefficient stoves in poorly ventilated spaces without chimneys.

In more than four-fifths of sub-Saharan countries, more than half of the population relies on solid biomass for cooking, and in half of these, the share is above 90%. Several countries have implemented programmes to promote the use of cleaner and more efficient cookstoves, the prime objective being to reduce the health effects of pollution from indoor smoke. Kenya aims to eliminate kerosene use in households by 2022 and improved biomass cookstoves are already relatively available in urban areas. Kenya has also passed a law that requires new buildings to be fitted with solar water heating systems. Strong policies in Senegal have supported a switch to liquified petroleum gas (LPG) and less than 30% of the urban population now use solid biomass. Other countries, including Ghana and Cameroon, have also made commitments to increase the share of LPG for cooking and are developing related policy measures.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that in general rising incomes alone have not been sufficient to result in increasing access to clean cooking fuels and concentrating populations will likely exacerbate this urgent problem (see Chapter 3 Spotlight), and moreover, many improved biomass cookstoves on the market today, though a great improvement on traditional cooking, still produce enough PM 2.5 to be considered a health hazard.

Deaths in Africa attributed to outdoor pollution, at more than 210,000 per year in 2012 (WHO, 2016a, forthcoming), are less than half of those attributable to household air pollution. As a result of limited economic activity, concentrations of outdoor pollution is low in most areas relative to other world regions, but the emissions intensity of new economic activity is high. Today the major sources of outdoor air pollution include old and unregulated vehicles, smoke from indoor and outdoor cooking with biomass, the unregulated burning of wood and waste (including the burning of toxic materials, such as electronics), dust from dirt roads, and coal-fired power generation, particularly in South Africa. The use of back-up diesel generators (including an unknown but large number of small generators in and around residences/apartments) to supplement inadequate grid- based electricity supply is also a cause of noxious emissions (IEA, 2014)

Measuring overall outdoor pollution is a major challenge: air quality monitoring does not exist in most African countries. For those cities in Africa that are monitored, the annual mean PM 10 and PM 2.5 emissions exceeded the World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines levels in almost all cases (WHO, 2016b). A satellite study suggests that between 2010 and 2012, 32% of West Africans and 28% of the North African and Middle Eastern populations are exposed to levels of PM 2.5 exceeding the WHO interim target-1 of 35 µg/m 3 , compared with none of the population of high-income countries (Donkelaaer van, et al., 2015).

Nitrogen oxides (NO X) emissions in Africa were around 6.4 Mt in 2015, around half from vehicle tailpipe emissions and a quarter from industry. Sulfur dioxide (SO 2 ) emissions were 5.8 Mt in 2015, 42% from the industry and transformation sectors and 45% from power generation, largely as a result of coal combustion in South Africa. Some efforts have been made across the continent to reduce PM 2.5 emissions mainly through incentivising the use of modern cooking fuels, such as LPG and natural gas, though pollutant emissions have risen, as has the number of people without access to clean cooking.

However, South Africa, through the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act of 2004, is one of the only African countries comprehensively regulating air quality and setting emissions standards, imposing limits on new and existing power plants and industrial installations. Effectively securing compliance remains an issue in South Africa (as in many parts of the world).

Transport is a major contributor to outdoor air pollution in Africa. An old and growing vehicle fleet, poor fuel quality and rapid unplanned urban growth all contribute to increasingly choked cities. Proper urban planning as well as improving public transport systems could reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Improving fuel quality, particularly removing sulfur, is a necessary step towards the use of improved vehicle technologies that reduce tailpipe pollution. Leaded gasoline was largely phased out in the 2000s, but fuel quality remains variable. Despite some regulation, the sulfur content of diesel remains very high in many countries: in Egypt, diesel sulfur content is up to 7 000 ppm, over 700 times the level in Europe.

Only a small number of African refineries have the capacity to produce low-sulfur fuels and, even though the value of the health benefits derived from upgrading refineries may far outweigh the costs, sufficient incentive for investment is lacking. Low quality fuels not only contribute to tailpipe emissions, but prevent the adoption of higher vehicle exhaust emissions standards. Such standards are implemented to a very limited extent: only Nigeria and South Africa have emissions standards reaching the level of Euro 2 (introduced in Europe in 1996) or beyond. Many countries ban or place tariffs on the import of older vehicles to discourage the dumping of outdated and inefficient vehicles, but their low price remains an attraction. The age and lack of maintenance of vehicles, weak enforcement of laws in place and variable fuel quality often means that the gap between test-standards (where they exist) and real-world operation can be particularly large.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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