Air pollution mitigation in China:…Lessons for Africa


On 17 November 2022, 15 central government bodies, including the National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a joint action plan that endeavours to eliminate heavy air pollution in 70 percent of China’s major cities by 2025. Ultimately, the plan will reduce the country’s annual proportion of days with heavy air pollution to less than 1 percent, a comprehensive action plan that adds up to China’s long list of concerted efforts dedicated to tackle air pollution, particularly in the last two decades.

During this period, China’s continued dedication to eradicate air pollution, which is anything but a walk in the park, has not been in vain – In 2021, China’s average density of PM2.5 particulate matter (harmful particulates) reached 30 micrograms per cubic meter, a drop by 34.8 percent from 2015. Over the last decade, China has experienced a considerable decline in air pollution. According to the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, China’s harmful particulates in the air reduced by 40 percent from 2013 to 2020, a massive transformation that could add 2 years to average life expectancy, if sustained.

In other words, China’s 40 percent decline in particulate matter within the 7-year period is almost equal to the 44 percent reduction in air pollution in the United States, which by the way, took more than 30 years to accomplish – from 1970, after the Clean Air Act was passed. In fact, China’s ability to considerably reduce air pollution within a comparatively short duration, in recent years, presents invaluable lessons to the rest of the world, especially to Africa, where air pollution is increasing.

report (2021) from the United Nations Environment Programme shows that even though Household Air Pollution (HAP), which is the dominant form of air pollution, is declining overall in Africa, as households across the continent move away from using solid fuels such as straw, wood and animal dung, towards using cleaner fuels such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) – by contrast, levels of Ambient Air Pollution (AAP), which is air pollution in outdoor environments, is beginning to increase.

The uptick in Africa’s AAP is attributed to increasing industrialization and economic development across countries in the region, which is linked with global supply chains. Major sources such as, rural-urban migration, which has increased the number of gasoline-and diesel-powered vehicles on African roads, as people exodus rural areas in search of greener pastures in urban areas (increases transport emissions) – together with electricity generation in coal-and oil-powered (dirty energy) plants built to meet the region’s rapidly growing energy demands and industrial emissions, are responsible for the upsurge in AAP.

Considering the deleterious socio-economic impact of air pollution on the African continent, it is imperative for governments and relevant stakeholders across countries in the region to adopt pertinent measures to effectively address this canker which has claimed millions of lives. In 2019, air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths in Africa – AAP and HAP accounted for 394,000 and 697,000 deaths, respectively – a huge socioeconomic loss to the continent. Data from the United Nations Environment Programme show that the greatest increase in AAP-related deaths occurred in African countries that have experienced rapid development – for example, in rapidly developing countries in the region such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Rwanda, economic output lost to air-pollution related diseases in 2019 was US$3 billion in Ethiopia (1.16 percent of GDP), US$1.6 billion in Ghana (0.95 percent of GDP) and 349 million in Rwanda (1.19 percent of GDP).

At this pace, certainly, meeting climate and sustainable development goals for African countries could be a mirage – clearly, a wild goose chase, especially if consistent, concerted and increased efforts are not dedicated to tackling air pollution. So the important question is: how can African countries tackle the rise of AAP? – Against the backdrop that the region’s growing industrialization and economic development powered by dirty energy is the cause of the rise in AAP.

Fortunately for Africa, China, which is by far, the continent’s largest foreign infrastructure investor, has made outstanding progress in addressing this challenge – As the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, China has made tremendous gains, more than any country, in its transition from dirty energy to clean energy, a move that has mitigated air pollution considerably. This remarkable achievement presents Africa with a window of opportunity to directly tap into China’s expertise and experience to alleviate air pollution on the continent.

To effectively mitigate AAP, the main goal should be to decarbonise the transport sector and concomitantly accelerate transition to clean energy such as solar, hydropower, geothermal and wind, for industries and households – as currently seen in China – China is not only home to the world’s largest new energy vehicle (NEV) market but also hosts the world’s largest installed clean energy capacity – a classic example of how Africa can effectively alleviate air pollution.

At present, Africa’s electric mobility remains the lowest in the world – even in South Africa, which is the continent’s most advanced e-mobility market, there are currently (2022) a total of about 1,000 electric vehicles out of the country’s entire fleet of 12 million automobiles. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, especially for power generation – data (2022) from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower account for more than 80 percent of new power generation capacity to 2030 in sub-Saharan Africa – underpinned mainly by China’s announcement  to end support for coal plants abroad.

The significant change at this critical juncture should be a wakeup call for governments and relevant stakeholders across countries in Africa, to effectively address air pollution – a call of duty to establish and strengthen legal framework to promote e-mobility and implement germane policies to scale up clean energy investment – bolstering clean power generation for industries and households, building adequate infrastructure for e-mobility, providing tax incentives and innovative financing for the EV industry. Collectively, these actions will not only mitigate air pollution in Africa but will also be crucial to achieving climate and sustainable development goals.

About the Author

Alexander Ayertey Odonkor is an economic consultant, chartered economist and a chartered financial analyst with a keen interest in the economic landscape of countries in Asia and Africa.

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