Okereke: COVID-19 Presents Opportunity to End Gas Flaring

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Prof. Chukwumerije Okereke who is the Director, Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike as well as a visiting professor at the University of Reading. He’s equally the Coordinating Lead Author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In this interview, he says the coronavirus pandemic offers Nigeria a unique opportunity to end flaring of gas and grow its clean energy outputs amongst others, excerpts. Chineme Okafor provides the excerpts:

What is your assessment of the current situation with Nigeria’s efforts towards climate change?

Well, the situation is that there has actually been quite a lot of interesting activities in Nigeria’s climate change effort, especially in terms of policy development. As you may know, Nigeria was among the 190 countries that submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UNFCCC in the run up to the COP meeting in Paris in 2015. Nigeria’s INDC has since been subsequently converted into the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) following the country’s ratification of the Paris Agreement in May 2017. Nigeria’s NDC commits the country to reducing its carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 baseline figures. The NDC further obligates Nigeria to 45 per cent emission reduction conditional on international support. A strong emphasis was also placed on adaptation given Nigerian’s vulnerability to climate change.

Now, many commentators agree that Nigeria’s NDC can be considered quite ambitious. However, the challenge has been with implementation. The NDC is built on the attractive and alluring philosophy that Nigeria will grow its economy by five per cent per year while also reducing carbon pollution. However, decoupling emissions from economic growth in the pursuit of green economic transformation requires strategic and concerted effort, including policy intervention, coordination, and the application of novel technologies and innovation. As you know, some of these areas represent important challenges to the Nigerian system with its weak institutions and low technological base.

But again, some important progress is being made under the dynamic leadership of the Department for Climate Change at the federal ministry of environment; for example, they have developed a sectoral action plan for NDC implementation, attempted to pass a bill on climate change, and issued two green bonds worth about N11 billion and N15 billion respectively. Now the process of the revision of the first NDC has already started. It is important to ask serious questions about exactly how much the first NDC was implemented, and what needs to be done to ensure that the new NDC does not end up being mere promises and words. I am particularly very keen to make sure that Nigeria uses the NDC and other climate action to tackle poverty, diversify its economy, create millions of green jobs, ensure a faster recovery from the impact of COVID-19 and build a climate-resilient economy. This is for me the great need of the moment.
From your estimation, are these targets within reach?

The honest answer is that while many of the targets are achievable, we are not likely to achieve them under the current rate of progress. As I noted, Nigeria made quite an ambitious commitment to reduce its Green House Gas (GHG) emissions by 20 per cent by 2030 compared to the 2010 baseline. Part of this target was going to come from reducing and ultimately ending gas flaring. However, since the NDC was ratified in 2017, there has not been significant movement towards ending gas flaring.

I will give you more examples. In the same NDC, Nigeria set the target to improving energy efficiency by 20 per cent with an assumption of 2.5 per cent improvement per year. However, with increasing number of high-polluting diesel generators, it is not clear to me how the 2.5 per cent annual improvement target can be achieved.
Also, the NDC contains a promise to provide additional 13,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable off-grid electricity to rural communities; however sufficient policy and action has not been put in place to help to achieve this target. The lesson is that while it is a good thing to craft an ambitious document in part to satisfy international requirements, intensive and resulted effort must be made to translate promises and intentions into concrete policies and action on the ground.

Well, today the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is widespread. How do you think the disruptions caused by this pandemic will affect the country’s efforts towards climate change?

It really depends on what governments decide to do in response to COVID-19. As you will know, there has been widespread report of improvements in local air quality in various parts of the world due to the lockdown. On the surface this might seem to be good for the climate. However, it is clear that this is neither a desirable nor sustainable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is not desirable because as you know, well over 300,000 lives have been lost and several millions of lives have been very negatively affected by the dreadful COVID-19 disease. And it is not sustainable because the lockdown will not last forever. So, what are the possibilities and options for governments around the world? Well, let me give you three basic scenarios. One possible scenario is that a long economic recession can ensue even after the virus has been suppressed. Such a recession could result in the global amount of carbon emissions being much lower than it is currently; but then, economic recession could slow progress in the development of the technologies and innovation needed to make long term sustainable progress in tackling climate change and moving the economies along the green development paths. Moreover, global economic recession is likely to have negative impact in the efforts to achieve other critical global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as achieving global food security, ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, ensuring high quality education for all and proving all people with access to water and sanitation.

The second scenario is that governments, keen to revive their economies, abandon their ambitious climate commitments and targets and begin to invest billions and trillions in the sort of economic activities that caused the climate change in the first place. For example, eager to save jobs and kick-start the economy, governments could subsidise fossil fuel, lower vehicle emission standards, relax ban on coal mining, remove taxes on high polluting economic activities, among others. In fact, it has been recently reported by some researchers in the UK that across 16 major economies, that have announced stimulus packages, roughly $2.2 trillion is being directed into sectors that have a large and lasting negative impact on the environment and climate. The consequences of such policies may well be the exacerbation of climate change with all the negative consequences such as loss of lives, sea level rise, heat waves, and possibly the outbreak of some kinds of new diseases, God forbid! The third scenario, which is the one I very much hope will happen is that governments act decisively in utilising steps to reboot the economy into opportunities to invest in sustainable sectors, create millions of new green jobs, and facilitate a global green growth transition. This is the path I pray and hope that Nigeria would take.

Back home, how will the pandemic affect Nigeria’s climate change efforts?
Again, it will depend on how the Nigerian government choses to respond. Hopefully they will see that tackling climate change is not a needless inconvenience that should be set aside in the pursuit of the recovery of economic growth; but rather a necessity that needs to be tackled alongside, and indeed as part of the economic recovery plan. Now, do not forget that Nigeria is actually among the top 10 most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. Remember we are talking about a phenomenon that could lead to decline of agricultural productivity by between 10 to 25 per cent by 2080 and result in the decline of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by as much as between six and 30 per cent by the year 2050. This loss is equivalent to between N15 trillion (US$100 billion) and N69 trillion (US$460 billion). Recall that Nigeria’s NDC records that the Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) Report following 2012 flood revealed that the total damage caused by the disaster amounted to $16.9 billion, representing 1.4 per cent of real GDP growth in that year. There is, therefore, no responsible Nigerian government that can afford to ignore climate change.

Do you have an idea of how Nigeria can handle her climate change efforts post COVID-19?
Yes, absolutely. As I have been indicating the way to go is to see COVID-19 as a wake-up call to do things differently and build. Here are a number of concrete suggestions: first, we must seek to diversify our economy away from oil. One of the reasons that Nigeria has been so hard-hit by COVID-19 is because we have put our eggs in one basket and, ignored several past warnings to diversify our economy. Effective response to climate change will require that we move away from the over-reliance on oil and invest in technologies of the future as well as intensifying current governments efforts to boost agricultural production and achieve food security.

Second, we should seek to combine climate action with effort to solve our perennial energy problem by significantly scaling up our effort to generate both on grid and off-grid electricity through modern renewable sources like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal sources. With the cost of PV haven fallen by nearly 85 per cent compared to its cost in about five years ago, massive investment in solar represents one of the most promising opportunities to tackle climate change and building a green and more resilient economy.
Third, we seek ways to covert the huge volume of gas that is flared and which contributes to about 49 million tonnes of carbon (CO2) annually to Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) that can be used for cooking. Nigeria produces over 2MTPA of LPG (one of the largest in Africa), but consumes an average of 30 per cent of the production volume. With a per capita consumption of just slightly above two kilograms, LPG is the least utilised in Nigeria amongst the four major cooking fuels – firewood, kerosene, charcoal and LPG. This rate is lower than several other African countries and explains the high rate of deforestation as well as deaths related to indoor air pollution in the country.

Meanwhile worldwide, Nigeria is the third largest producer of bioenergy, after China and India, respectively, and a whopping 80 per cent of the population still depend on charcoal and fuelwood for their energy needs, especially at the household level. It has been estimated that indoor air pollution resulting from traditional biomass cooking contributes to the death of 93 million women a year. This is the third highest cause of death after malaria and HIV.

Hence another smart climate action is to channel the gas that is being flared to help solve the problem of household energy poverty in the country. This will have the added benefit of helping to enhance social and gender equity, poverty alleviation and improve wealth and well-being of some of the poorest population in the country. By the way don’t forget that we can also blend natural gas to get methanol fuel which can be used for transport.

Do you have an idea about how the green bond Nigeria floated sometimes ago is faring?

Nigeria made history by being the first country in Africa and about the fourth in the world to float national green bonds as a way of tackling climate change. This is a perfect example of what can be achieved in Nigeria and by Nigerians under a proactive and farsighted leadership. Incidentally, I am actually a beneficiary of this initiative because one of the outstanding projects is the building of a 2.8MW solar facility in my university, the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike in Ebonyi State. This makes the university about the only federal university in the country that supplies its entire student population (about 7,700 students) and its 1,819 staff with clean, reliable and affordable electric power.

However, with that said, we really need to be careful about how we raise and use green bonds. These are debts that government will eventually pay back and I am not sure to be honest that enough rigorous analysis goes into choosing project and crucially monitoring and evaluating implementation. Moreover, it is a wasted opportunity that most of the projects on which the green bonds are spent have not been designed as bankable projects that will generate income from international climate and green funds via carbon credits. This is why it is important to ensure that we have the best minds working in this area so that we can be creative in exploring how we can unlock and use trillions of international climate finance out there to help address pressing climate change, energy, and other economic challenges in Nigeria.

At the global level, what is the UNFCCC and top countries saying to Africa in terms of supporting climate resilient efforts, will financial supports still be available after COVID-19?

This is important. Currently, Nigeria is continuing to receive important international funding to help it tackle climate change. The revision of the NDC which I spoke about earlier is being funded by the NDC Partnership which is a global coalition of governments and institutions. Recently UNIDO and the UNFCCC have announced intention to support Nigeria to undertake technology needs assessment that will help build vital climate institutions and capacity. It is safe to imagine that some funding sources will become scarcer after COVID-19. However, I also think that African governments can get smarter by using the COVID-19 as a basis to make a more forceful case for international funding support and even debt relief and cancellation.

I think this is one area in general where many African governments have lacked creativity or been slow in thinking outside the box. The key is to tie requests for funding or debt relief to clear climate green polices, economic restructuring in a new green deal for Africa. I have been speaking about this for years now, and sometimes I feel that not many African governments are listening.