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Sustainable development in the context of Nigeria

Sustainable development is broadly defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This concept is one that strives to balance three pillars (Economic, Environmental and Social) and is considered the pathway to realizing sustainability. One could think of these pillars as the 3 legs of a stool, which are essential and balanced for sustainable development to truly exist. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) set forward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to preserve the environment and improve the quality of life for all. Today, the SDGs represent a global framework for international cooperation and a yardstick for progress towards achieving sustainable development.

Nigeria finds itself in a delicate conundrum in pursuing a sustainable development agenda in line with the SDGs. On the one hand, the country needs to close the infrastructure and economic development gaps; but on the other, it is challenged to do so in a sustainable manner given its economic dependence on the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, to combat climate change, the 2015 Paris Agreement set a global goal to reach Net-Zero carbon emissions in the second half of this century. This has necessitated the ongoing transformation of the global energy system from fossil-based fuels to more renewable and green sources of energy (e.g., solar, wind, hydro). Thus, governments and companies globally are realigning their policies and strategies towards a low carbon economy. While Nigeria is aligned with the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, it is constrained in its pace of effecting the requisite changes.

Sustainability and the global energy transition have increasingly emerged as topical issues for Nigeria and Africa. Some argue that the developed countries, which built their economies on the back of industrialization powered by fossil-fuels, should primarily bear the brunt of solving the climate change problem. They perceive that countries in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa which runs primarily on coal) have contributed only a small fraction to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Proponents of this view believe that African countries should not be forced to abandon their vast untapped natural resources.

Whilst there is a valid argument for Africans to benefit from their resources, there is a tension between sustainability and harnessing these resources. However, both ideas are not mutually exclusive and should not be viewed from an “either-or” standpoint. Nigeria has a lot to gain by embracing the notion of Sustainable Development. As a developing nation, our pace of progress should not be expected to match that of more developed nations given our stage of economic development. Nevertheless, an increased level of awareness and a reorientation of mindset is necessary to move the needle on the SDGs, and advance Nigeria’s agenda towards achieving Sustainable Development.

Why sustainable development is important for Nigeria

A nuanced perspective on the issue of climate change and Sustainable Development should be considered in view of the challenge of conformity faced by Nigeria. Firstly, it is important to point out that climate change is not a regional issue but a global one. The implication being that although the developed nations may indeed be largely responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that have led to global warming, all nations equally share the planet along with the effects of climate change. African countries are arguably most vulnerable to the impact of climate change and would be remiss not to pay close attention to this crisis. In Nigeria, the physical risks of climate change are already present with increasing temperatures, drought and desertification in the north and increased precipitation, flooding and rising sea levels in the south. These trends are anticipated to continue, and it is imperative that government and relevant stakeholders continue to develop and implement strategies to mitigate potentially significant climate change related losses.

Nigeria’s agricultural production is highly dependent on rainfall, leaving the sector vulnerable to changes in precipitation patterns, which could negatively impact food security. Water availability and quality also continue to be a challenge, and this is compounded by the drying up of rivers and lakes, which are major sources of fresh water. This situation has led to migration and conflict in some parts of the country and is likely to escalate over time with additional stress on freshwater bodies. Furthermore, the ongoing conflict between northern Fulani herdsmen and southern farmers is partly attributed to climate change due to drought in the north, forcing herdsmen to migrate south in search of fertile land for cattle grazing.

Secondly, Nigeria has one of the highest population growth rates globally. The country is expected to double its population from about 206 million in 2020 to 401 million in 2050, at which point it will be the 4th largest population in the world. Furthermore, about 50% of the population is 20 years old or less, which puts significant pressure on the working-age adults to provide for a large (dependent) population of children. These children are the next generation of Nigerians that would be the beneficiaries of today’s efforts towards sustainable development, otherwise they could be left behind as the rest of the world progresses. The quality of their lives will depend on how much progress we make in delivering access to electricity, clean water, quality education and food security.

Historically, population growth has necessitated innovation and technological advances, which in turn have been favorable to mankind in terms of improved quality of life and standard of living. However, it has also resulted in increasing consumption patterns and persistent growth in the demand for energy. While the Nigerian population is growing rapidly, our electricity generation capacity is not growing at the same pace, which implies there will be a larger gap between the demand for and the supply of energy in the future. Furthermore, there is increasing demand for schools, hospitals, roads, housing, and water supply to support the young and growing population. Clearly, there is an urgent need to intensify our infrastructure development efforts to meet future demand, but this will require implementing innovative and sustainable solutions to address the problem of scarce resources.

Given the challenges of population growth and climate change, access to and sources of energy are critical to sustainable development. As Nigeria strives to build electricity generation capacity, we should incorporate renewable sources of energy to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of renewable energy technologies have fallen considerably over the last decade and are now comparable to (and in some cases cheaper than) fossil fuel technologies. Thus, we should carefully assess the natural resources (renewable and non-renewable) that are readily accessible and utilize options that balance profitability with environmental and social considerations.

To the extent that renewable options are available and cost effective, these should be explored and prioritized. However, Nigeria should not be expected to totally disregard the non-renewable options that are also naturally available. For instance, natural gas, being the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel should be a key component of Nigeria’s development and an integral part of our transition to renewable energy. As Nigeria grapples with the challenges of closing the energy access gap and confronting sustainability, it is in a unique position to simultaneously tackle both. Consequently, we must take a measured approach to growing the energy sector bearing in mind that while access to energy is fundamental to Nigeria’s development in the short to medium-term, harnessing renewable sources of energy is key to achieving long-term sustainable development.

Nigeria: Leapfrogging to sustainable development

We live in a world with limited natural resources, which necessitates consciousness of resource consumption and waste generation, both strongly linked to adverse environmental and social impacts. Consider the scale and impact of resource utilization, from water consumption for domestic and industrial purposes, to fuel consumption for electricity, transportation and manufacturing, and land use including deforestation and landfills. Hence, the ongoing global transition to a circular economy, one that aims to eliminate waste and reduce dependence on natural resources by encouraging a “make-use-reuse-remake-recycle” model. However, Nigeria’s resource consumption is still largely based on the traditional linear economy, a model that follows the “take-make-use-dispose-pollute” pattern, which is becoming unsustainable. Consequently, everyone, from individuals to companies and the government, has a critical role to play in supporting Nigeria’s transition to a more circular and low carbon economy for our collective benefit.

From an individual or household perspective, one should pay close attention to consumption patterns and seek opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle waste. Conserve energy by switching off appliances when not in use and convert to energy efficient appliances if one can afford to do so. Renewable sources of energy such as solar home systems should be considered (if possible) to reduce dependence on diesel and other petroleum-based fuels. Food waste is a major source of methane gas in landfills, so it is important to preserve food properly to minimize waste. Additionally, food waste can be used for composting in home gardens to reduce deposits to landfills.

For companies, in seeking to improve operations, it is crucial to incorporate energy and water efficiency technologies, which will also result in cost savings for the business. Understand your supply chain and the sources (as well as potential alternatives) of raw materials for your production process. If your business is in a climate relevant sector (e.g., fossil fuels, utilities, energy intensive industries) perform a greenhouse gas inventory to better understand your carbon footprint, and identify the risks and opportunities associated with your operational activities. Pursue projects that generate positive social and environmental impact and seek out financial institutions (locally and internationally) that favor such projects. Educate your leadership team, particularly your board of directors, on sustainability and its relevance in today’s business environment.

From a Government standpoint, the establishment of policies that are favorable to sustainable development and specific regulations to address sectors with high exposure to climate risk would be useful to drive this transformation. Fiscal incentives would also go a long way to encourage the adoption of utility scale renewable energy technologies. Such policies will serve to significantly increase energy access and provide relatively cheap energy, while diversifying the country’s electricity generation mix, thus improving energy security. Furthermore, the establishment of waste management regulations to promote the transition to a more circular economy could be an effective approach to reduce landfill deposits and boost the local recycling industry.

It is often said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. For Nigeria, if we begin to take steps towards realigning our consumption and waste generation habits towards sustainable practices, we can attain an Optimal Greening level in our homes, businesses and as a nation. Just as we did with the telecommunications sector, I also believe that Nigeria has a unique opportunity to leapfrog from current untenable practices to a sustainable future. We can do this by leveraging innovative, renewable and efficient technologies as well as accessing favorable green finance, given the global focus and capital allocation for sustainable development in emerging markets. We should seize the opportunity to develop our nation in a sustainable manner, while working together with the global community to address the climate crisis. Our ability to focus on and effectively tackle climate change by incorporating sustainability into private and public sector entities will determine the quality of life we bequeath to the next generation of Nigerians.

Iyahen is a sustainability expert and the Founder & CEO of Optimal Greening, a Nigerian-based and African-focused Environmental Sustainability company. She holds an MBA from INSEAD, a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Missouri, Columbia in the USA and a Graduate degree in Corporate Sustainability and Innovation from Harvard University.

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