Report outlines the keys to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Africa

Compact cities that are built for walking, cycling and efficient public transport should be the focus.
Even electric vehicles require energy resources, which is why high-density development is seen as necessary. Image: Supplied

Africa’s urban transport sector needs to replace traditional internal combustion engines with electric vehicles and develop new compact cities that are built for walking, cycling and efficient public transport to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from urban passenger transport. 

These are the findings from a study published by the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP) and the University of California, Davis.

The Compact City Scenario – Electrified report finds that the combination of the above could see the continent cut its cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from urban passenger transport by up to 50% come 2050.

The report finds that developing walkable and cycling compact cities will help the continent meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and preferably below 1.5°C. 

We need to focus on the fundamental equation of driving less, even in electric vehicles, which still require a lot of resources like clean electricity,” says ITDP CEO Heather Thompson.

“We need high-density development that provides better access to employment, education and services for families of all income levels without being dependent on cars,” she adds.

Read: Africa cannot continue to be a dumping ground for used vehicles – Erwin

Mass urbanisation in Africa

Rapid urbanisation in cities on the continent has led to rising congestion, which has a huge impact on infrastructure. Research by the United Nations forecasts that the continent’s population will reach over 1.5 billion by 2025, with almost half of people located in urban areas. 

The ITDP study finds that there is a need to rethink land-use policies on the continent, focusing on redesigning cities around efficient transit systems and high-quality walking and cycling facilities that will decrease demand for car use and cut down emissions. 

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It says that should governments prioritise these types of policy changes, they could drop emissions by 240 megatonnes per year by 2050.

The SA context

According to University of Cape Town director of the Urban Real Estate Research Unit, associate professor François Viruly, it is important to understand the report’s findings by looking through South Africa’s contextual lens.

In doing so it will be easier to understand what the country should be prioritising, which according to him – and contrary to the report’s prioritisation of efficient mass transit systems – is addressing the country’s housing problem. 

This, he says, is the fundamental challenge that needs to be addressed – and can be addressed through the development of compact cities.

In South Africa we have the 40-40-40 problem. In short, people live in 40 square metre houses, 40 kilometres from where they work and they spend about 40% of their income on transport,” Viruly tells Moneyweb. 

He says apartheid spatial planning – which pushed non-whites to the outskirts of cities, leaving long travelling distances between their homes and places of work, where economic activity is concentrated – is largely to blame for the congestion we find in SA’s cities today. 

Read: Global cities will be at the forefront of economic growth

Although the South African government has made progress in housing development,  initially through the reconstruction and development programme (RDP), its efforts have stagnated over the years. 

Viruly says the country needs to see a deconcentration of economic activity by building affordable housing in the cities, where people can live approximately 15 minutes away from their amenities. 

He believes that only by attending to the housing problem will the country’s transportation issues be resolved. 

“At the end of the day it’s about the compact city and I think the important thing that comes out here is that, yes, public transport has a role to play but it also has to do with the densities of our cities and where people live.

“It is important that we reduce the need for massive movement. In other words, [it is important] that we have more affordable housing in our CBDs … social housing, inclusionary housing. I think that to some degree, the transport problems we are facing at the moment are a reflection – still – of the way our cities were built,” he adds. 


The ITDP report points out that in addition to climate benefits, by prioritising better transport systems, countries can help reduce the cost for travel per person significantly and see a rise in job creation.

African leaders need to prioritise more inclusive transport infrastructure,” ITDP Africa programme director Chris Kost says.

“To achieve this, cities across the continent will require a shift to non-motorised transport and electrified public transport to improve access to employment, education, health care and recreation,” he adds.

However, Viruly says that along with those new possible jobs, the government together with developers, needs to prioritise sustainability in their environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria by building livable neighbourhoods that will ultimately tackle the overburdened transport system.

Read: Africa an investment hotspot as fintech goes mainstream

He adds that for South Africa, the priority should not be getting more and more electrical vehicles on the highways, but instead focusing on correcting dilapidated institutions.

How compact our land is becomes important. Public transport, yes, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we’ve got to get our trains back and going and even if the technologies could be improved, we’ve just got to get the institutional frameworks working just to get going.



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