Need to Take Climate Change More Seriously

Postscript by Waziri Adio

The 2023 general election, because of its landmark nature, provided a great opportunity to surface and dissect the obvious and the non-obvious but critical challenges facing our country. It was an opportunity to test the proposals by the candidates on the key issues of the moment and the future, to crowd-source solutions, and to build elite and societal wide consensus about what needs to be done to reposition our country. To a large extent, it was another opportunity that we allowed to slip.

The electioneering period was more a season of hollow soundbites and strident attacks than a real festival of ideas.

One of the key issues loudly absent during the long campaign period was climate change. It barely registered as a major or even marginal issue to Nigeria’s social and economic development. The glossy manifestoes hardly had anything major to say about it. And on the few occasions that the candidates entertained questions about climate change, their responses betrayed an appalling level of ignorance or vacuity. 

The fact that shortly before the elections most parts of our country were almost under water from one of our worst episodes of perennial flooding should have raised the interests of the candidates and the populace about one of the side effects of shifts in weather patterns. According to official statistics, more than 1.4 million people were displaced, over 2,400 people were injured and at least 603 people died in the 2022 flood in Nigeria. It was the worst flooding episode since 2012, itself a national record.

Yet, neither the damaging effects of flooding nor the overwhelming impacts of other effects of climate change and global transition away from fossil fuels focussed our minds on the necessity of having a decent conversation on the most significant issue in the world during the most consequential election in decades. We didn’t think it was necessary to examine and plan for what the shifts in the environment and the global preference for energy mean for Nigeria now and in the near and distant future.

Even with a new government in place, not much has changed. Expectedly, there will be a flurry of activities in official circles as COP28 starts in United Arab Emirates on Thursday. The Conference of Parties (COP) is where governments, businesses and activists gather yearly to discuss climate change and agree to key decisions. Expectedly, Nigeria will not miss the opportunity to show up, make statements, and seek concessions and supports.

Beyond showing up for the party, top Nigerian officials need to start treating climate change with the seriousness and the urgency that it deserves. And that urgency is not just by having laws, agencies, policies, programmes and plans, or by mouthing, occasionally, the right words. It is about undertaking concrete actions based on evidence and consultation, resourcing climate interventions adequately and smartly, and mobilising Nigerians across the board and our international partners to play their parts.

There is enough evidence that climate change, even if it still appears invisible to most members of our political class and the populace, is Nigeria’s most critical development challenge today because of its wide-ranging impacts and implications. Most of us may think climate change is distant or is not our problem. But nothing can be farther from the truth. The impacts of shifts in weather patterns are all around us: in perennial flooding, in drought and desertification, in coastal erosions, in rising temperature and rising sea level and in the ways all these in turn affect social and economic development and human welfare in country. 

A recent report by Agora Policy, a think tank that I lead, puts it grimly: “climate change is increasing hunger, poverty, disease-burden, migration, conflict and insecurity in Nigeria. It is damaging infrastructure, changing Nigeria’s coastlines, fuelling desertification, producing water scarcity, facilitating erosion and resulting in the loss of revenue for states and the national government.

“The total economic cost of climate change to Nigeria was estimated to be about USD100 billion cumulatively by 2020 and is projected to reach $460 billion by 2050. Climate change may also cause Nigeria to lose trillions of dollars in stranded assets. With these far-reaching negative effects on the country’s human and natural systems, climate change has the potential to jeopardise the country’s economic development and alter its geographical, social, and political trajectory for decades or centuries. Therefore, it should be evident that climate change is not a marginal or peripheral issue that the government and the people of Nigeria can take lightly.”

The people at the helm of affairs do not seem to have got this memo yet. Climate change is already exerting a heavy toll on us. And the toll is likely to get heavier if we do not act quickly and strategically. But it is not all bad news. Titled ‘Climate Change and Socio-Economic Development in Nigeria,’ the 84-page report by Agora Policy adds: “Even though climate change poses significant threats to Nigeria’s economic development, it also presents an opportunity to diversify the economy, expand the country’s energy portfolio, address energy security concerns, and increase global economic competitiveness. To transform climate change from a significant threat into an opportunity requires deliberate planning supported by immediate, bold and courageous action.”

With facts and figures, the report makes a compelling case about the climate crisis at the global and national levels, and lays out how Nigeria can minimise the negative impacts of climate change and maximise the opportunities of energy transition. The report was formally presented midweek in Abuja at a high-profile event with the theme “Nigeria, Climate Change and the Green Economy”. From the various contributions made by the speakers, panellists and other participants at the event organised by Agora Policy and its partners, I will highlight three points that that I think policy makers should take seriously.

One, it is important for all actors, especially the government, to embrace the reality and the urgency of climate change. Neither denial nor defiance is particularly helpful. Speaker after speaker at the event emphasised that the fact that Nigeria and other African countries are the least emitters of Green House Gases in the world does not insulate these countries from the disproportionate impacts of a warming planet. The earlier Nigeria and others start focusing on how to adapt and how to be resilient, the better for them. An all-of-society approach is needed, but government has to take the lead. The government needs to rouse itself, move from policies and plans to concrete action, prioritise proper coordination, use state levers effectively to incentivise desired behavioural changes, then mobilise the rest of the society, especially in a language and manner that is not exclusionary and does not further marginalise the poor and other vulnerable groups.  

Two is the need to be proactive in engaging the transition from the old order to the rapidly evolving and clearly unstoppable new order. The transition away from fossil fuels will have implications for government revenue, especially for states and communities that depend almost exclusively on revenue from oil and gas, and for vulnerable and marginalised segments of society. It is necessary to be ready or risk being further left behind.

The following will be needed: evolving frameworks for handling ongoing and future remediation efforts in extractive host communities; developing policies in inclusive, collaborative, just and fair ways; investing current earnings from oil and gas to deepen opportunities in the new economy; learning from and avoiding the mistakes made with management of the oil and gas sector; linking climate change to national development plans, rather than as a standalone issue; and fashioning ways to ensure that Nigeria can improve its energy deficit and achieve its development objectives in a way that aligns with the global shift toward a low-carbon environment. 

And the third and last point I want to emphasise is the imperative of understanding the economics of alternative energy. It is not surprising that this point was underscored by the commercial banker on the panel, Mr. Abubakar Suleiman, the CEO of Sterling Bank who also trained as economist. (Incidentally too, the corporate headquarter of his bank is powered by solar energy.)

“One language everyone understands is their bottom-line,” Abubakar stated. “So, the conversation should be about the bottom-line for everyone.” In short, it is important to make it make sense. Preachments about saving the planet will not make as much sense to most people as the concrete benefits that will accrue to them in terms of reduced costs, increased profits, improvement in quality of lives, and the potentials for jobs and economic growth. How and what we communicate will also matter.

To optimise the opportunities of the green economy, government will need to work on stimulating demand for renewables and investing in the alternative energy eco-system. This is the way to unlock capital flows into the sector and ensure that the country benefits from every point of the value chain of the renewable economy.  

We cannot wish away the reality and the impacts of climate change. Both the policy makers and the larger populace need to show more seriousness and more urgency. And we need to be better prepared for both the unremitting challenges and the emerging opportunities. Doing otherwise can only be at our peril.

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