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The Building Tomorrow Project

Clean Air for Africa

The Building Tomorrow Project
In this article: Sustainability

In Europe, exposure to particulate matter (PM) decreases the life expectancy of every person by an average of almost one year[1]. Every year in the U.S., more than 400 people die and approximately 50,000 people visit an emergency room from accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

Simple statistics like these can be the catalyst to help push for positive change — when we fully understand the impacts of air pollution on our health, for example, we’re more inclined to talk to our government representatives to pass changing legislation. 

But in Africa, useful statistics like these are nonexistent — and that’s exactly what Volvo CE Diagnostic Engineer Elisabeth Källström is trying to change.

In Africa, sweeping legislation is much needed, not only to combat the effects of a warming planet, but to literally save the lives of many of its people. Currently, there’s no strict legislation across the African countries that guides, regulates or checks emissions from vehicles and generator engines. 

For Elisabeth, a global emissions map presented during a Volvo course last year on diesel engine emission aftertreatment brought this to light. She saw that in more developed countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia and most E.U. countries, ultralow sulfur diesel with a maximum of 10 to 15 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur has been the norm for years — but in the vast majority of African countries, over 2,000 ppm is allowed — nearly a 20,000% increase.

Elisabeth initially thought of staying back in Sweden to conduct emissions research from afar — but when COVID-19 hit, she realized her time might be better spent putting work aside and taking a more hands-on approach. So in February 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic first began spreading, she decided to take a six-month unpaid leave of absence from Eskilstuna to Lagos, Nigeria to work firsthand on her clean air initiative.

A passion for changing the emissions legislation across an entire continent doesn’t require an engineering degree to put things in motion — but it certainly helps. Understanding the basics of air pollution is a critical first step. Why?

Because in Africa, there’s no constant power supply — lengthy power failures are common, and most homes still use diesel-powered generators as the source for their own power. Even those living in poverty utilize a small generator. The problem with all these generators is that they put out much more than just needed electricity — they emit harmful pollutants that can devastate families.

In many cities across Africa, homes and apartments are clustered together in small confinements, so pollution directed from one window easily makes its way into another. Avoiding the toxic fumes is nearly impossible. 

The fumes are made up of nitrogen oxide (NOx), the pollutant that causes acid rain and smog. In high concentrations, it causes inflammation of the airways that can lead to asthma, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more.

It’s also not uncommon to see an entire family lose their lives due to carbon monoxide (CO) exposure. Tragically, they’re often found in the exact position they were in when they went to sleep at night. Additional particulate matter (PM) and hydrocarbons (HC) also cause irreversible lung, liver and kidney damage.

Understanding what these compounds and particles do to the human body is an obvious first step for change. Elisabeth has found some initial success educating both government officials and citizens through social media, with a focus on the dangers of inhaling these types of pollutants. 

To further her work, Elisabeth has launched a nonprofit — the Elisabeth Källström Clean Air for Africa Initiative — focused on creating awareness and advocacy that will promote renewable energy, proper waste management and legislation around emissions levels to promote clean air in Africa.

Replacing dirty generators with clean solar power is a good first step, and the nonprofit is also working to help install free solar panels in various communities to create mini-grids of cleaner, more sustainable power — much like they have in more developed African countries like Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

As a part of these efforts, Elisabeth is also working on three different air quality research projects through two Nigerian universities: Nnamdi Azikiwe University and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Their focus is on measuring air quality from vehicle emissions, in the classroom and in the outdoors. She also plans to measure air quality in confined neighborhoods to see how much toxic gases are being emitted. 

And because it’s become her passion, she’s personally funding these efforts all on her own. Her goal is to eventually set up an air quality lab that more universities can use to expand her research efforts. 

“With emissions legislation, we can monitor and help Africa set emissions targets,” she says. “And with targets in place, countries can look at vehicle and equipment imports and set restrictions on what can be purchased. It’s an ambitious goal, but I think it’s one worth fighting for.”

But her efforts don’t stop there. Elisabeth also spends time educating communities on the importance of properly sorting waste. In many communities, leftover food is mixed in with plastic, metal, batteries and other harmful waste. Oftentimes it’s burned, releasing even more toxic gasses into the atmosphere. When this happens next to a market or farm, the negative impacts on health are even greater.

African countries have become a dumping ground for ozone-depleting refrigerants that have been globally phased out in other parts of the world. Tighter restrictions and security checks, in African countries as well as in the rest of the world, are needed to keep this type of waste from entering these countries.

“At the end of the day, if the ozone layer is depleting, we’re heating up the planet — and the planet belongs to everyone,” she says. “You’re putting something in the hands of someone that doesn't understand what it is, and the consequences can be significant.”

Elisabeth has also had discussions with the ministry of environment in Nigeria to help put together emission legislation for Nigeria. With professors in Ghana and Kenya, and two doctors and one professor in Nigeria, she’s also setting up the Air Quality Society of Africa. The organization will measure emissions in different parts of the region and have a means to publish the data to help government officials and citizens understand the importance of emissions regulations on health.

So, where would Elisabeth like this initiative to be at the end of this new decade?

“Ten years from now I would like Africa to have made significant progress on reducing harmful pollutants in homes, and even meet the Paris agreement of bringing emission levels down by 2030,” she says. “If we want to hand over a healthier, more sustainable planet to the next generation, Africa has a role to play.”

And with individuals like Elisabeth helping lead the change, we just might make it happen.

Learn more about this subject:
Achieving Africa’s Development in a Way That Limits Air Pollution and Climate Change
Africa Energy Outlook 2019

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