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Climate crisis: Nigeria vows to reach net zero by 2060, but how?

President Muhammadu Buhari made a significant statement at the just-concluded United Nations climate change summit, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), held in Glasgow, United Kingdom. In a speech on November 2, he said Nigeria would reach net zero emissions by 2060. This was one of the highlights of COP26 because each country that commits to net zero increases the possibility that the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, might be reached. More net-zero pledges help to “keep 1.5 alive”, a COP26 slogan!

In announcing the net zero pledge, Buhari evoked the climate crisis. “I do not think anyone in Nigeria needs persuading of the need for urgent action on the environment”, he said. “For Nigeria, climate change is not about the perils of tomorrow, but what is happening today”, he added, citing the impacts of desertification, floods, pollution, and soil erosion. Then, having painted a picture of climate emergency, he declared: “Nigeria is committed to net zero by 2060”!

Of course, Nigeria is in good company, swimming with the tide. Several countries, including major fossil fuel economies like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, have committed to net zero. Indeed, according to Net Zero Tracker, 137 out of 198 countries have made net zero pledges, covering 90 percent of the global economy, 85 percent of the world’s population, and 88 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So, Nigeria’s net zero pledge bumps up the global net zero numbers and widens the coverage.

Yet, while commitment to net zero is symbolically important, as it signals a country’s intention, the real test is whether a country is willing to make the tough choices that net zero requires, namely, to rapidly wind down fossil fuels, and whether it has detailed plans to do so. That’s what makes a net zero pledge credible. And these are the criteria by which Nigeria’s net zero commitment will be judged at home and abroad.

The truth, though, is that neither the revised NPCC nor the updated NDC represents a detailed net zero plan.

Before we come to that, first, what is net zero? The word “net” suggests it’s not about absolute zero emissions. Truth is, it’s impossible to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions completely because some sectors, such as aviation, are difficult to decarbonize. So, “net zero” means that a country must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible and “offset” the residual emissions through natural carbon sinks, that is, through measures that absorb carbon, such as forestation and technologies that capture and make effective use of carbon emitted by industrial activities, known as Carbon Capture, Usage, and Storage (CCUS). So, net zero is achieved through reducing emissions and increasing carbon sinks, the former being the dominant climate action.

Read also: COP26: Countries reach climate deal, refuse support for world’s poorest

Thus, a credible net zero commitment must entail a detailed plan for actively reducing emissions and increasing carbon sinks, as the UK’s recently published Net Zero Strategy does by setting out a roadmap to reaching net zero by 2050 through ambitious decarbonization and off-setting measures. For instance, the strategy includes detailed and measurable plans and targets for decarbonizing sectors or activities such as electricity or power generation, industrial activities, buildings, transport as well as resources and waste.

Of course, a credible net zero pledge must also be underpinned by legislation, such as the UK Climate Change Act of 2008, as amended, which makes reaching net zero by 2050 a legally binding commitment, and mandates a statutory body called Climate Change Committee (CCC) to set five-yearly carbon budget, that is, the maximum amount of carbon that can be emitted within a five-year period.

So, how credible is Nigeria’s net zero pledge? Well, President Buhari said in Glasgow that detailed plans are already in place to meet the net zero target. He pointed to the revised National Policy on Climate Change, NPCC, approved last June and the updated Nationally Determined Contribution, NDC, submitted to the UN last July. In the updated NDC, Nigeria promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent (unconditionally) and 47 percent (conditionally) by 2030. The updated NDC also includes additional priority sectors, such as water and waste.

The truth, though, is that neither the revised NPCC nor the updated NDC represents a detailed net zero plan. In the first place, the NPCC was approved well before Nigeria made its net zero pledge, so it’s hard to see how the NPCC would represent a credible delivery plan. Truth is, neither the revised NPCC nor the updated NDC sets out ambitious emission-reduction and greenhouse gas removal measures.

That said, the National Assembly’s passage of the Climate Change Bill, sponsored by Samuel Onuigbo, a member of the House of Representatives, is a positive development, as the bill includes a net zero target for 2050 – 2070. Onuigbo said that had President Buhari signed the bill into law ahead of COP26, that would have been Nigeria’s “loudest statement of ambition” in Glasgow. Well, one must hope that, with the president’s announcement at COP26, he would now sign the bill into law so that Nigeria can have a Climate Change Act!

However, a climate change act with a net zero target is meaningless if Nigeria remains unwilling to wean itself off fossil fuels. Sadly, that’s the case, despite the possibility of a statutory net zero commitment.

In Glasgow, President Buhari’s net zero pledge was accompanied by a statement that Nigeria would continue to burn gas to generate electricity. Nigeria “has huge reserves of the fuel, about the ninth-largest in the world, that remains largely untapped”, he said. Of course, Nigeria also has largely untapped coal reserves, about the 18th in the world, and, although less mentioned these days, there was also a plan to revive Nigeria’s coal sector. Moreover, Nigeria has large oil reserves, and the Petroleum Industry Act sets aside 30 percent of NNPC’s profits to fund oil and gas exploration in the frontier basins.

So, self-serving, Nigeria does not want to let go of its abundant hydrocarbons. Indeed, President Buhari’s message at COP26 was: “Yes, Nigeria wants to reach net zero by 2060, but we would continue to burn fossil fuels and, please, help fund our hydrocarbon projects”. But that flies in the face of the G7 countries’ decision to stop funding oil, coal, and gas projects overseas, and ignores the International Energy Agency’s view that investments in oil, coal, and gas projects must end for the world to reach net zero global emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Of course, Nigeria needs considerable international support to become a net zero economy. But it will not get that support unless it seriously commits to weaning itself from fossil fuels. For instance, South Africa committed to net zero by 2050 and set out plans to decommission and repurpose its coal-fired power stations. In response, the US, EU, and the UK agreed to provide $8.5bn to help South Africa switch from coal to green energy. Nigeria will get international support with a credible net zero commitment!

Indeed, Nigeria needs radical actions to decarbonize its economy. The energy sector accounts for 60 percent of Nigeria’s total emissions. That sector must be decarbonized with shifts to renewables and electric vehicles. But Nigeria still pays lip service to low-carbon energy generation, and, despite the hype about assembling electric vehicles, there’s no pathway to phasing out the 11.5m combustive emission vehicles in circulation.

What about livestock breeding, particularly cattle, which accounts for about 13 percent of total emissions. In a country that values cows more than humans, can Nigeria ever raise climate-friendly, methane-free, cows? Doubtful!

President Buhari’s net zero pledge at COP26 was significant, but with Nigeria’s unwillingness to make the tough choices that net zero requires, it lacks credibility.

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