Against the backdrop of the Africa Climate Summit and Africa Climate Week, Nairobi hosted the UN Environment Programme’s fourth annual International Clean Air Day for blue skies event with Nairobi City County Governor, Sakaja Johnson, on September 7th, 2023. This year’s theme, “#TogetherforCleanAir” (in Swahili, “#PamojaKwaHewaSafi“), focused on the need for strong partnerships, increased investment and shared responsibility to overcome air pollution.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk of our time. Almost all the world’s population breathes unsafe air. Exposure can lead to stroke, heart and lung diseases, cancer and more. In Africa, air pollution was responsible for over 1 million deaths across the continent in 2019, with ambient air pollution accounting for over 390,000 deaths in that period. Calling air pollution a “silent tragedy,” Governor Sakaja Johnson unveiled a new mural by Kenyan artist BankSlave depicting the impact road pollution has on the health of Nairobians, especially children – who are among the most vulnerable to air pollution.
The mural includes the image of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a British girl who died of an acute asthma attack at age nine. The UK Coroner’s report subsequently ruled that air pollution contributed to her death because she lived near a busy roadway in London. “May her memory and the memory of all the young lives cut short by pollution inspire us to keep our children’s air and water clean and the planet safe,” Governor Sakaja noted, pledging to make Nairobi a net-zero city by 2030 and to be a leader in the region for air quality.
Echoing the day’s theme, Governor Sakaja added, “We cannot walk alone. Strategic planning and engagement with stakeholders and the public are crucial.” He noted the county has a five-year operating plan “to make Nairobi a more vibrant, attractive, sustainable city in partnership with World Resource Institute’s Clean Air Catalyst program, and we are really thankful for the work we have done so far.”
A global partnership funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Clean Air Catalyst is supporting the Nairobi City County government (NCCG) in expanding its air quality capabilities to include two regulatory-grade air quality monitoring stations, a first for the city. It also founded the Nairobi Air Quality Working Group, which the NCCG has joined. The initiative is focused on mainstreaming air quality and climate change actions, particularly in the transport and waste sectors.
At the event, AirQo, a Ugandan-based organization, demonstrated the low-cost sensor network it is rolling out in the city. The 17 sensors will provide additional information to regulators and the public about the state of Nairobi’s air quality. Governor Sakaja said expanding air quality data is part of his government’s plan to reduce air pollution in Nairobi:
“We will get the new air quality bill done and presented to our assembly, so we also have a legislative framework for the interventions. We will get the new air quality regulations done and passed, and we will cut emissions, especially from cars and other forms of transport, and you will be able to check on your own devices the air quality live, right on our website.”
Roopa Karia, Environment Office Director for USAID Kenya and East Africa, also spoke at the event, emphasizing how air pollution is an all-encompassing issue for which causes and solutions, “overlap, and like climate change, the risks and the health effects of air pollution are not shared equally, which makes it an equity issue, and an environmental justice issue.” She reiterated USAID’s commitment to support Nairobi’s government “through the Clean Air Catalyst, with advice from communities, industry, health and business leaders…to better understand the sources of air pollution and prioritize their clean air solutions.”
Wanjira Mathai, Managing Director of WRI’s Global Partnerships and WRI Africa, focused on Africans’ role in advancing clean air goals for the whole continent, saying, “We are on the cusp of a special new era for climate leadership in Africa by Africans.” She continued by noting the Nairobi Declaration was signed during World Clean Air Day activities which, “gives us a strong basis to ensure air quality is part of what we mean when we say ‘building lasting resilience’, if we don’t make air quality a part of that, we won’t have lasting resilience.”
Martina Otto, Head of the Secretariat of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, underscored the need to embed clean air criteria into climate action and vice versa, “often the same drivers, the same sources of air pollution are also the ones that cause climate change,” she said. “We can be much more effective with our measures and also our financial means if we actually plan for the multiple benefits.”
She also noted the need for shared partnership: “We all carry a responsibility. Individually we can take action with our day-to-day decisions, but we also know we have all the solutions. It’s about scaling them up and to scale them up we need to work hand in hand across sector silos and across levels of government.”
To continue to build on the work highlighted during the mural unveiling, the Clean Air Catalyst organized an Africa Climate Week side event, “Catalyzing Clean Air and Climate Action in the Transport Sector: Sharing Lessons from Nairobi and Kampala,” alongside the Nairobi City County government.
Moderated by George Mwaniki, Head of Air Quality for WRI Africa, the discussion focused on the need to pursue evidence-backed action and multi-level collaboration to drive transformation in the transport sector. The conversation also touched on the important role stakeholder forums and engagement play to coalesce support for action on specific sources of air pollution in the transport sector and to create comprehensive air quality management plans; as well as the usefulness of sector-based emissions inventories that incorporate health, gender and sustainable development metrics; and recommendations from experts developed by Clean Air Catalyst on how to incentivize actions to reduce road pollution. Finally, the event ended with a call for regional and international action to curb a growing global crisis: the international market for catalytic converters fueled by theft and lack of regulation.
Ibrahim Nyangonya, a County Executive Committee Member for Green Nairobi, gave an overview of the city’s air quality management plan and priorities, including formulating its own Air Quality Act 2023, which highlights priorities for emission reductions in transport and other sectors, completion of the Nairobi City Air quality regulatory framework, and dedicating specific funding for air quality initiatives in the city budget.
Selelah Okoth, Head of Air Quality for the National Environment Management Authority, and Michael Wanyama, a road safety expert from Uganda, highlighted the need to prioritize training and outreach to the informal sector – which the vast majority of vehicle owners employ to fix their cars and lack the expertise to properly maintain vehicles to curb pollution. Okoth said that she suspects nearly all of Nairobi’s cars have had their catalytic converters removed and that even newer cars with higher emission standards imported to Kenya quickly fail to meet minimum standards due to improper maintenance.
Betty Mugo, Gender and Inclusive Development Specialist for USAID Kenya, addressed the gender and equity dynamics around the transport sector and how they drive differentiated air pollution exposure. Finally, atmospheric scientist and climate champion, Andriannah Mbandi, highlighted the need for regional support from the East Africa Community or Africa Union to transition to cleaner transport modes.
These two events, held at a pivotal point of climate and air quality work in the region, aim to launch new efforts for clean air action.
Daniel Ibanez is a Digital Communications & Marketing Specialist for the Air Quality program at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Beth Elliott is Communications & Engagement Lead for the Air Quality program at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.