Kenya earlier this month emerged as the least-toxic country in the world in a study by the British renewable energy company The Eco Experts utilising data from International Energy Agency and the World Health Organization to rank countries by pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, energy consumption, renewable energy production, and deaths attributable to air pollution.
Of the countries where data was available, sub-Saharan Africa countries topped the list, while Western and middle eastern economies dominated the most “toxic” spectrum.
This comes as no surprise as these are typically the least industrialised countries, and the ones yet to fully exploit their fossil fuel reserves, which corresponds with low energy consumption and low carbon emissions.
As proof of the value of natural ecosystems, Brazil and Indonesia – the other two countries in the top 10 – are home to some of the largest rainforest ecosystems in the world, the Amazon, and the Leuser ecosystem.
Despite their reliance on fossil fuels, they have adopted intense biodiversity protection measures to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests.
Development pathways of developed nations appear to reveal a relationship between environmental degradation and economic growth.
The environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) hypothesizes that environmental degradation accompanies economic growth as countries invest intensively in cheap energy, transport and infrastructure to stimulate industry, and lift populations out of poverty.
The EKC posits that when countries reach the acme of economic development, they are then able to invest more in low carbon economies.
This is in part accurate. Pursuit of economic growth interacts heavily with natural resources, whether in clearing land for farming, making space of rails and roads, or tapping into natural resources for energy, leading to some level of environmental degradation.
However, assigning solitary EKC thinking to developing countries ignores the global progress, innovation, and responses to climate change challenges that could enable safer and sustainable growth.
It is important for Africa because despite its minimal global contribution to greenhouse gases, it is the least equipped to deal with climate change challenges such as drought, diseases, resource scarcity and conflicts, and ecosystem degradation.
For Kenya, sustainable economic growth will require strategic policies, innovation, and environmental governance, especially in delivering energy, transport, urban growth and agriculture goals.
Policies should mitigate and manage the social and environmental impact of fossil fuels, and accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Despite the accolade of being the least toxic country, a previous study ranked Nairobi as a top polluted city. Vehicular emissions contribute to the bulk of air pollution in developing countries.
A sustainable transport approach reduces pollution by promoting mass transit to reduce single vehicle occupancy.
It is also supported by policies that reduce overreliance on second-hand vehicles, and promote non-motorised forms of transport.
Therefore, managing urban growth calls for wide-ranging policies, and equitable distribution of investments to ensure cities are not stressed beyond their capacity.
Complementary to policy and environmental governance, is the role that individuals, businesses and civil society play in safeguarding the planet for future generations.
Across the world, nations have paid dearly for environmental recklessness. Only time will tell if Kenya, and the rest of Africa are wise enough to learn from – and avoid – the mistake of others.
Kathambi Kaaria is a sustainability strategist; [email protected]; Twitter: @kkaaria