The road to better air and lower emissions in South Africa

Simultaneously addressing climate change and air pollution promises to be the single best approach to limit global warming to 1.5°C while, at the same time, providing desirable health benefits. National and local air quality management plans – described here for Johannesburg and Tshwane (South Africa) – will play an important role in the implementation of this co-benefits approach.

The air quality of many African cities is deteriorating quickly due to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The main contributors to air pollution are emissions from transport, industry, domestic (often coal-based) heating and cooking, electricity generation and agriculture. The health effects – mainly respiratory diseases, but also cardiovascular diseases, premature birth, reduction in cognitive ability, depression, etc. – are omnipresent and the associated health costs are rising with alarming speed.

Many air pollutants, such as black carbon (soot), methane, ozone, etc., are labelled as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), because they are also climate forcers. It therefore follows that strategies to reduce such pollutants will also provide co-benefits for climate change mitigation. In fact, enough scientific evidence now exists to show that limiting global warming to 1.5°C can be much better achieved not only by focusing efforts on greenhouse gases (GHGs) but also by simultaneously targeting SLCPs.

Effective urban air pollution abatement strategies typically include motorised traffic reduction measures, promotion of public transport, use of renewable fuels for cooking and heating, greening of populated areas, etc. with the strategies usually framed within air quality management plans (AQMPs). In South Africa, Johannesburg’s AQMP is currently being updated and, with assistance from GIZ and its partner uMoya-NILU, Tshwane’s plan is being developed. As part of this AQMP work, air pollutant and GHG emission inventories are being drawn up, and dispersion modelling of relevant particulate and gaseous pollutants is being carried out. AQMPs are therefore an important pillar of effective integrated urban planning for sustainable low-carbon and low-pollution cities, addressing both human health and climate change simultaneously.

This co-benefits approach to air pollution and GHG reduction is currently surprisingly low on the international development agenda. However, its potential is huge: A 2011 report jointly produced by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization showed that tackling SLCPs could reduce global warming by 0.4 to 0.5°C before 2050. In addition, measures to address SLCPs often reduce emissions of long-lived GHGs such as CO2 (e.g. by bringing down traffic and coal use), which is essential if we are to achieve a lasting temperature reduction.

While financial support is made available by certain governments in the form of discrete allocations, an orchestrated regional or global funding approach to this increasing and, by now, well-documented environmental threat is still missing. The only exception to this is the World Bank’s Pollution Management and Environmental Health Trust Fund. For their part, intergovernmental programmes, such as the UN-initiated Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), play an important role in promoting the co-benefits approach among Governments.

For more information, please contact: