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Across Africa, increased motor vehicle use, industrial growth and dust storms coupled with wood-fired cooking stoves is resulting in air pollution that is choking the continent’s inhabitants.

While air pollution in India, China, and other emerging economies has become a major area of concern for scientists and policymakers, it has gained little traction in Africa where it is taking a serious toll on the economy and human health. Toxic air has been causing more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition on the continent while significantly contributing to the climate crisis.

Air Pollution in Africa: Facts

A report by UNICEF notes that deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased by 57% in less than three decades, from 164,000 in 1990 to 258,000 in 2017, resulting in a GDP loss of over $215bn annually. The pollution has also cut short the lives of children by 24 months.

A recent study from NASA states that pollution from industrial sources and motor vehicles cause high mortality rates in Nigeria and South Africa while emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms increase the number of premature deaths in West and Central Africa.

“Africa holds the world’s largest source of desert dust emissions and produces approximately a third of the Earth’s biomass burning aerosol particles,” the study says. “Sub‐Saharan biomass burning is driven by agricultural practices, such as burning fields and bushes in the post-harvest season for fertilisation, land management, and pest control.”

Causes of Air Pollution in Africa

Analysis of satellite imagery by Greenpeace reveals that the world’s deadliest air pollution spot on the planet is in South Africa, with its eastern province Mpumalanga being the largest single area infected by deadly nitrogen dioxide. The province is home to a dozen coal-fired power stations, processing plants, and factories, which release the gas into the atmosphere.  

Emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury have been causing more than  2,000 deaths from respiratory disease, strokes, and heart attacks in many places in South Africa, including Johannesburg.

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Africa’s most populous country — Nigeria — suffers from air pollution worse than any other country on the continent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists four cities of Nigeria among the world’s worst-ranked cities for air quality. Onitsha — one of the country’s economic hubs — tops the list of worst-ranked cities globally with a record of 30 times more particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration in the air than the WHO’s recommended levels.

A world air quality report from Greenpeace ranks Nigeria as the 10th most polluted country in the world, with an estimated average PM2.5 concentration of 44.8 micrograms per cubic meter air (μg/m3). More than 64,000 people died from household air pollution in the country in 2017, mainly from the burning of solid fuels such as charcoal and wood for cooking in open fires and leaky stoves.

Senegal is also struggling with highly toxic air. Its capital Dakar scored an average PM2.5 level of 30 μg/m3 and a PM10 level of 146 μg/m3; that is seven times higher than WHO recommended threshold. During the dry season, dust-storm from the Sahara — harmattan — and pollution from industry and motor vehicles coalesce in a hovering toxic cloud.

Kenya’s predicament mirrors that of its neighbours, with particle concentrations that are twice the WHO health safety standards. Over 18,000 premature deaths in the country have been linked to air pollution, while respiratory diseases climbed to be Kenya’s number one killer, surpassing malaria.

The true scale of the problem is likely to be underestimated, as only seven of Africa’s 54 countries have installed functioning real-time air pollution monitors to collect the data. Population growth and rapid urbanisation are expected to further worsen conditions. With an additional 1.3 billion people set to occupy the continent by 2050, industrial, agricultural, and anthropogenic activities are likely to lower air quality. Costs associated with pollution might explode if bold policy changes are not urgently initiated by African nations.

The leaders of African nations need to resist the temptation of fossil fuel corporations seeking to exploit a country’s resources or enter their market. As urbanisation and industrialisation ramps up across Africa, policies must be put in place that prioritise renewable energy and use green technologies in urban construction. As the number of companies researching and developing such innovations continues to grow, the cost of engaging such companies and implementing new technologies falls. Policymakers should focus on partnerships and agreements with other countries to build sustainably. An international agreement that holds governments accountable for their country’s emission rates, while also involving the support of transnational agencies such as environmental NGOs and UN development agencies, can be a strong framework for industrialising African nations to follow. 

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

As if the existing conditions were not alarming and dire enough, our oceans are about to face yet another survival threat. The emerging deep-sea mining industry is gearing up to open a new industrial frontier in the largest ecosystem of our planet. A number of private companies plan to lower gigantic machines to bulldoze and churn up the seabed, upsetting a delicate ecosystem balance we still know little about.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body, has issued 29 exploration licenses and distributed to a handful of countries that sponsor private deep-sea mining companies. The licenses allow them to commercially exploit vast areas of seabed covering 1.3 million sq km of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

Why Deep-Sea Mining?

Abyssal plains witness a complex combination of chemical and geological processes that lead to the formation of hydrothermal vents- deposits of chemically rich fluids including sulfide pouring up from beneath the seafloor.

These vents contain minerals like copper, nickel, manganese, zinc, lithium, and cobalt, which are the main raw materials for smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric storage batteries. Global demand for these minerals has spiked while supplies from terrestrial mining remain finite and hostage to geopolitical wrangling. For instance, demand for nickel currently sits at 2 million tonnes a year, and is expected to rise to 4 million by the end of next decade.

The supply of terrestrial minerals is predicted to last for only around 40 years, prompting companies to secure the supply of these resources from the seafloor.  

Countries like China, the UK, France, India, Germany, Russia, and Belgium, have now received the nod from ISA for deep-sea mining. Among these nations, China holds the largest sea mining exploration area of around 161,210 sq km, followed by the UK with an area of around 133,280 sq km.

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Upsetting the delicate ecosystem on the seabed could have grave effects for us in the future. Source: Global Ocean Commission

The Debate

The prospects of sea-bed mining have already been met with stark opposition from several environmental groups and scientists who predict the industry will cause colossal damage to marine ecosystems. By contrast, the ISA believes new technologies can minimise harmful impacts. 

Why is Deep-Sea Mining Bad?

A recent report by Greenpeace states that deep-sea mining risks potentially irreversible environmental harm, warming of ramified consequences even beyond the allotted mining zones.

Crucially, mining is going to deepen the current climate emergency by weakening the ocean’s ability to store carbon in its seafloor sediments. “Deep-sea sediments are known to be an important long-term store of ‘blue carbon’, the carbon that is naturally absorbed by marine life, a proportion of which is carried down to the seafloor as those creatures die,” the report says. “Deep-sea mining could even make climate change worse by releasing the stored carbon.” 

Machines excavating the seafloor will create sediment plumes, which could smother deep-sea habitats for kilometres. Apart from the direct removal of the seafloor habitat, it will also cause a release of toxins in the processes altering the chemistry of the waters. 

“The ships on the surface for the mining operation could release toxic vapours into the water, harming many ocean species for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres,” the report says.  “Noise generated by churning machinery risks harming and disturbing marine mammals like whales, while floodlighting areas of the dark deep ocean could cause permanent disruption to sea creatures adapted to very low levels of natural light.”

Potential impacts of deep-sea mining. Source: IUCN

Meanwhile, Michael Lodge, secretary general of ISA, says that the assumption of deep-sea mining inevitably causing large-scale irreversible environmental damage and ecosystem collapse seemed grossly exaggerated.

“The environmental management techniques that will be used by the Authority, contractors and sponsoring States are tried and tested,” he said. “They include environmental impact assessment, based on a collection of baseline data during exploration; long-term monitoring both during and after impact; use of best available technology to minimise impacts and risk mitigation measures.” He added that although 29 sea-exploration leases have been given out to various states, the area covered in the leases represent just a minuscule part of the entire ocean floor.

The Future of Deep-Sea Mining

The ISA is still drawing up environmental regulations on deep-sea mining, which are expected to be finished by July 2020. Industrial-scale mining cannot begin until then.

Conservationists demand the regulations should be effective enough to avoid serious and lasting harm to the environment. “We are facing a unique window of opportunity to ensure that potential impacts of these operations are properly assessed, understood and publicly discussed,” says Kristina Gjerde, Global Marine and Polar Programme senior advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations.”

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