Sustainability is a Scam

Khadija M-Williams

The Bola Tinubu-led administration has shown its support for climate and sustainability- friendly initiatives. In particular, this administration has endorsed the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Energy Transition Plan which sets a clear path to carbon reduction, as well as a net-zero emissions by 2060 target. The previous administration also signed into law the Climate Change Act 2021, which requires governmental bodies at the Federal Government level; and public and private organisations to adopt practices that are geared towards fostering a society that is environmentally sustainable, emits low carbon emissions and is climate resilient. This support sets the scene and provides the favourable atmosphere needed for various entities in Nigeria to operate more sustainably. Recent hiring patterns at multinationals based in Nigeria also highlight this shift towards sustainability.

Why is it then, that a number of Nigerians view sustainability, and its proponents, as a scam? Simply put, Sustainability is ensuring that we use resources in a way that does not prevent future generations from accessing the resources they need. It involves meeting the needs of the present while also allowing future generations to meet their own needs.

If we go one level deeper, sustainability leads to the ESG concept (i.e., Environment, Social and Governance), which is a way to measure how sustainable any entity is. Entities in the private and public sectors employ this concept to communicate to stakeholders how well they perform in these areas, but any entity can use this to analyse its performance.

However, I get it; people have not met their basic needs and sustainability proponents ask them not to burn fossil fuels or dump refuse indiscriminately when alternatives are inaccessible or too expensive. Even when solutions are available, there may be significant barriers to accessing them or they do not cater to our specific context. One cannot ask a mother of 3 in the village to switch from firewood, in a bid to save the trees, when she has no access to expensive gas, not to talk of renewable energy sources.

Perhaps the main issue is in the framing of what sustainability is and the lack of context- specific solutions and examples. Proponents may not be doing a good job of communicating what it is and isn’t in easily digestible formats. Let’s look at the circular economy concept; at its core, the circular economy aims to design processes that minimise waste as much as possible. This concept is not new to Nigerians. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of everyday processes that involved the re-use of materials and wastage was very much frowned upon. Examples included taking empty glass soft drink bottles to a vendor and exchanging them for new (filled) ones, and turning old clothing to rags for domestic use or handing them down to others. These are clear examples of living sustainably, especially in the environment and social areas.

On the other hand, we have clear examples that show how we are preventing upcoming generations from enjoying the gifts we currently enjoy. An example is in the pollution of riverine areas in oil producing states. Another example will be the contamination of land from the dumping of e-waste. Thirdly, in the social realm, is the lack of or inadequate healthcare in some areas of the country. These examples also have flow on effects that will disproportionately affect different socio-economic groups.

The above examples can be said to be caused by, linked to or be exacerbated by the changing climate, which is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of our time. Once again, I get it;

climate change is not a problem for the mother of 3 working to sustain her family. However, if we do not work to address it, we will only continue to treat symptoms.

It is true that developed nations got to where they are by using the same resources they now ask developing nations to shun. One may then argue that it is unfair of them to ask developing nations like Nigeria to stop using its abundant oil and gas resources in its attempt to achieve developed nation status. However, when we think about the fact that developing nations will bear the brunt of the changing climate, it is in our best interest to adopt sustainable living initiatives and encourage other developing nations to do so. One only needs to recall the 2022 floods in Pakistan and the 2023 heatwaves and heavy rainfall in parts of India to understand the issues we are likely to face should we not correct the course we are currently travelling.

Ultimately, we need to think about what we want for ourselves and our future generations. There are developing nations that still use fossil fuels but are planning for a renewable and sustainable future. The Giant of Africa will do well to ensure it joins the ranks of these countries. We cannot continue to harbor ill will towards developed nations because we feel they are unfair; we need to view the evidence before us and act objectively. Africa needs to create a roadmap for its own sustainable development and Nigeria is well placed to lead the charge.

In subsequent articles, I will take a deep dive into specific environmental and social issues facing Nigeria and the current and potential solutions we can adopt to solve them.

Khadija, who is an environment and sustainability expert, writes from Melbourne, Australia.

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