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Nigeria shouldn’t have joined the race to Net Zero

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By Habiba Ahut-Daggash

· 7 min read

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that limiting global warming 1.5°C, which scientific consensus suggests is the tipping point beyond which catastrophic climate change will occur, required global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to reach zero by 2050 and become net-negative thereafter. With these findings and increased pressure on governments from citizens to accelerate climate action, over 130 countries pledged to deliver Net Zero by 2050. At the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP26, President Buhari committed Nigeria to a 2060 target. The announcement, met with celebration and surprise, is indicative of increasing consensus that climate change mitigation efforts need to be accelerated, but more so that the mix of pressure and persuasion—often in the form of investment contingent on progressive climate action—from advanced economies has worked. I had expected Nigeria to resist this pressure given our negligible contribution to historical GHG emissions and the limited understanding of what Net Zero would mean for our underdeveloped economy and energy systems. So, I was curious about the factors, be they economic or political, that influenced the government’s announcement.

After the announcement, the government presented its first-ever energy transition plan, which detailed how it planned to deliver climate change mitigation within its borders and seemed to be the evidence backing the Net Zero pledge. The plan was prepared for the Federal Ministry of Environment by a leading management consulting firm in collaboration with Sustainable Energy for All. It assessed how key sectors of the economy need to transition to deliver Net Zero by 2050 compared to a business-as-usual scenario where no decarbonisation action is taken. Decarbonisation strategies are often informed by energy system models, which are mathematical models that can guide decision-making on the design and operation of an energy system by illustrating different strategies to meet future demands and environmental targets. They are designed to meet such targets whilst optimising economic, operational, or environmental factors (such as energy price, investment cost, or greenhouse gas emissions) given real-world constraints such as energy demand, technology costs, and resource availability. These models are data-intensive and computationally complex because a wide range of design features and model inputs (thus results) are possible.

The firm that led the work used one of its proprietary analytical tools to develop pathways for Nigeria’s energy and industrial sectors. The acceptance of a model that is not widely accessible or peer-reviewed to inform policy that has potentially far-reaching implications for the economy is irresponsible, as it has limited our ability to critique the underlying assumptions in the plan and assess whether they are suitable to our nation’s context. It may be the case that the pathway modelled focused on driving down emissions as quickly as possible, with little consideration of the optimal pathway for job creation or local resource utilisation.

According to the plan, delivering Net Zero would only allow for a limited increase in emissions until 2025, after which they need to fall rapidly to zero by mid-century. Essentially, economic planning decisions must ensure that whatever population and economic growth occurs in this period does so in a manner that will be carbon-neutral or -negative. This is a staggering challenge as industrialised economies have historically experienced significant rise in emissions from the fossil fuel use that drove economic growth, which then peaked post-industrialisation through increased energy efficiency and renewable energy use. Unlike advanced economies, Nigeria isn’t so much committing to an energy transition—because we don’t have established energy and industrial systems to transition from—but attempting a new, low-carbon model of development that hasn’t been trialled elsewhere. Should this model fail to realise the levels of economic growth achieved by fossil fuels, the effects will likely be borne solely by us. Given our negligible contribution to climate change, why should we share the burden of mitigation equally with industrialised countries that are pressuring us to achieve carbon-neutrality at the same time?

Net Zero would require full electrification of the economy by 2050, including the installation of 250 GW of new power generation capacity (more than 90% of which are from renewable energy sources), conversion of 80% of the car fleet to electric vehicles, and adoption of clean cooking solutions (biogas or electric-based) by 80% of the population. Natural gas use for power generation would need to rise to meet demand until 2030, after which it must be displaced by solar until there is none by 2050. 42GW of on-grid generation is needed by 2030, 14GW of which is provided by gas-fired power plants. This begs the question: why would anyone invest in these many gas generation assets if they will be stranded or heavily underutilised after 9 years? Additionally, 5 GW of solar generation capacity needs to be built every year for the next 40 years. Now this is not an impossible feat; China built 250 GW in a decade. So, I’ll leave it to the reader to assess if Nigeria can muster up to a quarter of the economic organisation and investment that China harnessed into its solar industry.

Industry emissions (primarily from cement and ammonia production) need to decrease by 97%, despite a 100% growth of the sector. This can purportedly be achieved through a “100% shift to zero emissions fuels” which were not further specified. For reference, industrial decarbonisation in the EU/US is expected to be achieved through the electrification of heat, use of hydrogen or biomass as a fuel or feedstock, deployment carbon capture and storage (CCS), and other innovation in materials and chemical processes—all of which are either non-existent or minimally-deployed in Nigeria presently. By 2050, gas production would be 48% less than current levels. This is at odds with government rhetoric, and the National Gas Policy which aims to mainstream gas use across several sectors of the economy, particularly in the power sector where utilising domestic natural gas resources is viewed as a means to guarantee long-term energy security. It is expected that transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy could create up to 840,000 jobs by 2050, mainly from the deployment of decentralised solar solutions and clean cooking stove distributions in the power and building sectors.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly delivering Net Zero by 2050 would require an investment of $410 billion, in addition to business-as-usual investment of $1.5 trillion. Essentially, a $1.9 trillion price tag. As the near-total electrification of energy end-use, and widespread availability of zero carbon electricity is the backbone of the plan, the power sector has the highest investment needs at $405 billion. $5–6 billion per year of public funding would also be needed. The panel presenting this plan discussed the need for public, donor and private financing to realise these efforts. Notably absent was any mention of the enabling policies, regulation and institutions needed to encourage investment, and the time/effort that is often required to put them in place. Countries that are embarking on aggressive decarbonisation pathways have long laid the foundation through public funding for research, development and demonstration of new technologies, environmental monitoring, regulation, etc.

This energy transition plan hinges on a rapid pace of technological and behavioural change, massive scale of investment in low-carbon technologies, and the creation of an enabling environment that I feel is out-of-touch with economic and political realities in the country. The past isn’t necessarily indicative of the future, but the plan hasn’t tried to temper its underlying assumptions with historical precedents, or even the pace of change in countries that are further ahead on the decarbonisation journey, to determine what is realistic, especially in the short-term when current financial and political constraints are likely to persist. I appreciate that climate change necessitates action, and we will hopefully see accelerated timelines for systemic change, but we cannot deny that change will be more difficult in our country of great economic and socio-political complexities.

Nigeria cannot accept unrealistic model assumptions under the pretext of being optimistic about the future. Instead, we must temper our optimism to avoid being trapped by our commitments. This net zero target will be included in global energy models and used to estimate what needs to be done elsewhere. Overcommitting is lifting the burden on those who can pursue more aggressive mitigation immediately. Worse, this plan could be used to dictate the type of financing that we are offered, which may be at odds with local understanding of what is most beneficial. Climate change is already threatening lives and livelihoods here and we have a vested interest in limiting its effects. Nonetheless, we must be cautious in how we chart our future in this new carbon-constrained paradigm. We must get on the path to decarbonisation with as much vigour as we can muster, but we must also recognise our limitations and create realistic pathways that prioritise the nation’s development. We cannot succumb to an international political atmosphere that is thriving off feel good net-zero pledges, with little understanding of what it means for our economy.

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Habiba Ahut-Daggash is an Associate with RMI’s Africa Energy Program where she focuses on delivering agricultural electrification interventions. She has a PhD in energy systems modelling from Imperial College London, and holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering science from the University of Oxford.

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