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African economies recorded significant economic growth rates averaging 5.9% between years 2000 and 2008, and 5.2% over the last ten years. During the same period, annual death rates as a result of air pollution rose by at least 36% in the region. This is not surprising because fast economic growth (caused by higher business or firm productivity) is often accompanied with higher air pollution (Particulate Matter 2.5 or PM 2.5 levels, i.e. tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are high).
Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution (PM2.5) levels, countries can reduce the occurrence of diseases such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases including asthma. People become exposed to air pollutants from vehicles, factories, construction sites, unpaved roads, burning fossil fuels (e.g. coal and gas), grilling food on charcoal or gas grills, burning leaves and bushes, smoking cigarettes, and burning wood in a fireplace or stove.
To find out exactly how air pollution affects economic growth in Africa, Maria Soppelsa – a consultant at the World Bank and two others recently carried out a research that provides evidence linking air pollution to firm-level productivity. They gathered data from the World Bank Enterprise Survey and information on firm-level particulate matter estimated by Dr. Van Donkelaar, a professor at University of British Columbia, Canada.
Here are key results from the research:
There is a direct relationship between air pollution and economic growth in Africa; and the channel is through changes in workers' productivity and therefore business productivity:
When the air pollution is still low (below 8 𝜇g/𝑚3), firm productivity falls as air pollution rises. Why? Because economic growth is not yet high enough to cancel out the negative effects of air pollution on people/workers’ productivity.
But when air pollution is moderate (between 8 𝜇g/𝑚3 and 25 𝜇g/𝑚3), firm productivity rises even as air pollution rises. Why? Because the positive effects of economic growth cancels outs the negative effects of air pollution on workers’ performance.
However, when air pollution is high (at 25 𝜇g/𝑚3 and above), firm productivity begins to fall as air pollution level rises. Because by then, the negative effect of air pollution on people’s health and productivity becomes higher than the benefits people receive from higher economic growth.
The Bottom Line:
Sub-Saharan African countries, on average, have air pollution (PM 2.5) levels of 44.6 and is rising (note that some countries and cities have more air pollution and some have less). Although air pollution in African cities has not yet reached the high levels seen in China and India, African countries need to start managing air pollution even as their economies grow. This is necessary because high pollution levels can negatively affect workers’ productivity; therefore lower firms’ productivity and economic growth.
One key strategy to manage air pollution is to minimize fossil fuel (coal, gas, wood etc) burning and emissions. This can be achieved by exploring cleaner energy alternatives such as solar power and other renewable energy sources. There are many examples of successful policies in transport, urban planning, power generation and industry that reduce air pollution. For example:
Prioritizing rapid urban transit (like trains, buses, and electric cars), as well as walking and cycling networks in cities;
Ensuring access to affordable clean energy for cooking, heating and lighting;
Shifting to clean modes of power generation like solar and hydro power;
Improving energy efficiency of buildings, using more clean technologies;
Recycling wastes, reducing open burning of of solid waste, and capturing methane gas emitted from waste sites.
Still craving? Check out: WorldBank Open Knowledge Repository
Article Credit: Precious C. Akanonu, and Michael Adesanya (Editorial)