Africa's renaissance for the environment: the atmosphere


The issues range from extreme weather events, such as drought and floods related to climate variability, to access to energy for the majority of the people in the region. These extremes in weather mean too much rain in some areas or too little rain in others. The consequence of such extremes is that ecosystem functions are disrupted, with disastrous consequences for biodiversity and the people who are affected. For example, both drought and floods negatively impact food production and food security as well as hydroelectricity generation which supplies energy for domestic and industrial use.

Oxides of sulphur and nitrogen emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels such as coal and diesel in the power generation and smelting industries are important contributors to air pollution. In trying to address the negative aspects of the atmosphere there is a tendency to focus on such emissions and air pollution, while taking the assets inherent in the atmosphere for granted.

caption The Global Atmospheric Watch Station at Mount Kenya provides important data collection and atmospheric monitoring and assessment services. (Source: C. Lambrechts/UNEP)


The atmosphere, and maintaining its integrity, is essential for environmental and human well-being. All weather takes place in the troposphere, which is 14 km above the Earth’s surface. Weather patterns and climate are key components in Africa, influencing seasonal and annual variations in temperature and rainfall patterns in and between sub-regions and countries. The stratosphere and the ozone layer, which are above the troposphere, absorb ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without absorption, ultraviolet radiation is hazardous to life, and the Africa region is part of international efforts to phase out the use of fluorocarbon compounds which deplete the ozone layer.


With the slow pace of industrialization, many African countries will continue to be minor contributors to industrial air pollution. In the foreseeable future, lowincome consumers will continue to purchase and use reconditioned vehicles that fail to meet air quality standards and that may contribute to increased levels of local vehicular emissions. Some industrialists’ antipathy against air quality standards is likely to continue for a while, especially given the political tendency to pitch environmental concerns against those for employment and economic empowerment of the poor. The uptake of cleaner production technologies is likely to remain slow, in line with the overall pace of industrialization. However, increasing involvement of the private sector in the formulation and implementation of air quality standards may improve the efficiency and compliance of local industries, as illustrated by the example of the cement industry in Uganda. The monitoring and enforcement of atmospheric quality standards is likely to remain a challenge in the face of lack of investment in institutional and human capacity-building.

A serious problem across Africa is that of indoor air pollution, given the heavy dependence of the population on biomass fuel for cooking and the inadequate ventilation of the kitchen. The respiratory diseases associated with indoor air pollution may persist for a while unless measures are taken to introduce affordable cleaner energy systems for the poor.


Policymakers could consider the following actions:

  • Develop appropriate air quality policies and standards with the active involvement of all stakeholders, and effective systems for their implementation.
  • Review the components of the transport and taxation policies that relate to better management of emissions from motor vehicles.
  • Introduce or improve the management of a carbon tax, the revenues from which could be used to develop green belts in urban centres to serve as carbon sinks.
  • Promote access to clean energy systems for the rural and urban poor in order to reduce health problems associated with indoor air pollution.


The stakeholders include government, the private sector and civil society. Partnerships with the scientific and health communities are essential in developing appropriate standards.

Result and target date

Countries should aim at having policy and standards in place by 2010 and reducing the levels of indoor air pollution by 50 per cent through a combination of improved technologies, such as more efficient stoves, and other affordable cleaner energy systems by 2015.

Further reading


This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Africa's renaissance for the environment: the human dimension  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Africa's renaissance for the environment: land


Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Programme, U. (2012). Africa's renaissance for the environment: the atmosphere. Retrieved from


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