There is an urgent need to deliver the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while addressing the climate injustices experienced in Africa, the most vulnerable continent that has done least to cause the climate crisis. For climate action to be effective, impactful and healthy for African countries and people, there must be a convergence of the climate framing of the North and the development framing of the South. Long-term climate timescales do not prioritise immediate benefits from decreasing air pollution; it is critical to deal with air quality now; we should not live with an unhealthy environment while we wait for future solutions. In this context, African governments have an opportunity to link clean transport and energy access to public health, as illustrated in recent work of the Health and Climate Network.
For instance, In many low- and middle-income countries, residents have limited access to public transport, instead relying on high-polluting minibuses and motorcycles or being limited to the resources and opportunities they can access on foot. Where public transport is available in low-income countries, it’s often expensive (e.g. commuters in Lagos, Nigeria, spend on average 40% of incomes on transport (see more in Transport Systems That Protect Health and Climate).
The world’s poorest populations make most of their daily journeys by walking, often on dangerous roads which expose them to high levels of air pollution and limit their access to healthcare resources. No or limited access to safe, designated pedestrian areas or public transport – especially in cities – has many compounding health effects, including increased exposure to traffic pollution and a risk of road injuries and deaths. The combined costs of air pollution, congestion, lost productivity, road accidents and other costs associated with high-carbon transport contribute to annual losses of around 10% of GDP in low-income countries.
Health must also be a fundamental component of energy planning and decision making. Lack of access to modern energy across the African continent is associated with deprivation in health, education and productive use, plus residential cooking, gathering fuelwood and using it brings major health implications from indoor air pollution. Polluting transport, low-productivity agriculture and food insecurity are part of the energy, health, and climate dilemma for Africa. The burdens associated with limited access to clean and reliable energy fall more heavily on women.
Transport and energy access is a key part of building resilience of African communities, creating a mitigation and adaptation nexus. Communities with proper access have a higher capacity to respond to impacts of climate change due to improved health from clean air and increased income opportunities. Greater integration of transport and energy with other sectors will enhance the delivery of the SDGs, recognising sustainability benefits of healthy cities, energy efficient health services and gender inclusion. In each country the route to these goals will be different, as noted in the HCN briefing Shaping COP27 around African climate and health priorities.
Increasing traffic congestion is a major threat to the resilience and sustainable growth of rapidly growing African cities. The negative impact on air quality and health is understated. In Ghana, air pollution is reported by the World Bank to be costing the economy close to $2.5 billion per year. A study of four fastest growing African cities (Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg and Lagos) has further indicated a total cost of $115.7 billion from 2023-2040 relating to air pollution if development follows the business as usual scenario. Public transport options are limited and planning with a private vehicle-focused approach continues to have grave costs on human health. This is highlighted in Clean Air Fund’s from Pollution to Solutions Report on select African megacities.
African countries are thus at a crossroads, with new transport and energy infrastructure still to be built to meet growing demands. This will require additional finance and investment, and this investment must target urgent development needs first, while also being climate compatible. Development partners including multilateral and bilateral entities must urgently increase their level of investment in Africa’s transport and energy resources, ensuring that available and realistic financing is provided to all countries to transition to cleaner fuels and greater access.
African countries also need an honest discussion on fossil fuels and the transition pathways to develop a strategy to reduce dependency on fossil fuel revenues and develop supported transition pathways for transport and energy. A framework that ensures inclusive and equitable development, ending fossil fuel subsidies, placing a moratorium on oil and gas investments, focusing on renewable and sustainable energy as vehicles for economic development must be the way to go (as discussed in HCN’s Just Energy Transition for a healthy fossil fuel free world).
Improved active and public transport and clean energy options will protect the health of people and the climate while delivering substantial cost savings. To deliver sustainable transport and energy systems for a healthy Africa and a thriving planet, national governments and local authorities are recommended to take the following actions:
1) Prioritise safe active and public transport and clean energy in planning and infrastructure decisions to reduce emissions and increase health benefits.
Research modelling transport policy in nine countries found that a shift towards greater active transport would help save around 1.2 million lives annually by 2040 due to increased exercise.
2) Invest in efficient and zero-carbon transport and energy systems and technologies.
A transition to zero-carbon transport and mobility powered by renewables can save lives, limit climate damage, and reduce costs in vulnerable countries hardest hit by the climate crisis.
3) Ensure that mobility solutions reduce inequities and benefit all users.
Ensuring that transport solutions are safe, accessible, and affordable – through investment in dedicated infrastructure – will ensure that health benefits are equitably distributed.
African governments must recognise that transport and energy problems are also public health problems. Delivering a transport and energy transition for Africa requires further regulatory measures and air and water quality monitoring. African transport and energy ministries must make rapid and continued improvements in access and sustainability, and local communities must have greater decision making power in these areas. Developing and implementing joint policies on climate change, clean energy and sustainable transport would free up billions of dollars from associated negative health impacts for investment in other sectors of African economies.