‘Climate change act has put Nigeria on path to growth’
Sam Onuigbo is the member representing Umuahia/Ikwuano Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives. Currently GLOBE’s Vice-President for Africa and President for Nigeria, he sponsored the Climate Change Bill, which was recently signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari. In this interview with The Guardian, he gave insight into the Act, which he said has put Nigeria on growth path.
President Buhari recently signed the Climate Change Act into Law. However, the bill had been with the National Assembly for years. What in your opinion was responsible for that delay?
Well, I will answer for myself. Let me start by saying that you know, when people do not understand something that is about to be introduced, they tend to run with some ideas that are not predicated on facts; they are likely to make a lot of mistakes. They could even be taking wrong decisions and be insisting that it is right. So, what happened in the 6th and 7th National Assembly, I do not know.
However, in the 8th Assembly when I chaired the committee on Climate Change, we tried to have an agency and a Technical Committee to advice the agency; it was going to be chaired by the Vice President. There were issues about whether there were many people in the council; Mr. President raised some few points as his reason. But if you ask me, I would tell you that some faceless interests stopped these bills.
Why was it that these assemblies were never able to get it right? I recall that an assembly once came up with the idea of a commission, but it was resisted. We also tried an agency, but it was also similarly described in a language that suggested we needed to change approach.
So, what did the 9th Assembly do different regarding the Climate Change Bill?
In the 9th Assembly, we decided to move the thing to a higher level of policy-making, coordination, implementation and monitoring, by creating National Council on climate change. The only bureaucratic thing about it is that we must have people to enforce it. That is why we structured it in such a way as to have Mr. President – given the serious nature of climate change – as the head. It is not something to leave in the hands of people without absolute authority. That is why we formed the bill, and the council to be headed by the president and his vice. All other ministers, including the minister of environment, are members of this council.
The reason we insisted is this; with all my experience, I have noticed something called peer pressure, which I have better understood as ‘peer jealousy.’ It occurs, in this context, where two equally ranking people, e.g., ministers, have to pursue a policy together. For instance, we all know that even among equals, there are people more powerful than others. So, if the less-powerful minister calls for a meeting, the other more-powerful ministers would snub the invitation and send their directors to represent them. That kind of approach doesn’t help decisions to be made. In order to avoid this, we have focused on the council level involving the President; nobody can snub the president’s invitation. This is a serious matter and it doesn’t need sabotage.
Secondly, we insisted on having a DG to serve the Secretariat. He or she will draw upon the powers of the council to call for meetings among the ministers in the council. He is also able to tell the ministers to submit their reports, if necessary; the powerful ministers cannot afford to fail their President. When the proposition was made that we should use the DG of the Climate Change Council to chair the council, I asked some questions. I wondered whether the DG could sit in council with the President, leapfrogging the Permanent Secretaries. And if it is a department with more than one minister, then the minister and substantive minister are involved. Also, can the DG pick up his phone and call a powerful minister, bypassing his permanent secretary and substantive minister, and ask him to submit a report? So, it is in a bid to eliminate all these bureaucratic bottlenecks that we structured the bill this way. With all the ministries, from Power, to Oil and Gas, to Transportation… once the name of Mr. President is attached to it, the DG of the council can make a call and elicit the desired response.
In this bill also, we have the climate change fund. Truly, a lot of fund comes into the country, but they come in in silos; it is difficult to do proper monitoring and coordination of the funds. But going forward, when these fund come in, they would be centralised and monitored.
Management of the Ecological Fund has been a major debate in Nigeria. Is there a provision for that in the Climate Change Act?
We actually wanted to make the ecological fund to belong to the climate change fund in the first bill, but it is better to take things one-step at a time. We were even asking for 1 per cent of the budget then, but we have realised it is important to get the bill in place first. We can always amend it later. However, it is important to have money that is coming in being properly accounted for.
We also have broadened this Act in a way that allows us to accommodate some nature-based solutions like the Great Green Wall, and even natural capital accounting. What is involved? We talk about fish, the minerals, and forestry, being regarded as assets when determining the GDP. Now, we are allowing the GDP capture all these; that is the blue economy. That is why Nigeria is working to protect our natural assets. So, the Act is very holistic. It also talks about carbon budget; it regulates emission levels for annual and five-year cycles. If these things are un-documented, it is difficult for people to take it seriously. I can tell you that with this Act, we are getting more phone calls from foreign investors who want to invest in our oil and gas sectors.
I participated in the last Glasgow meeting on Climate Finance chaired by Mr. Mark Carney, who used to be a governor of the Central Bank of UK. He made revelations about what the private sector is doing to fight climate change; he equated a figure of about $130trn. When Obama spoke about climate change, he spoke about what his administration invested in for the struggle, as far back as 2009, which were amounting to $90b. It has helped their renewable energy sector. There are over three million Americans now working in that sector. So, there is huge potential in this.
Seeing this bill through was indeed a tortuous journey. How did you manage to stay on it despite obvious setbacks and challenges?
We live in an inter-connected world; we live in a world where if you don’t move fast, you would be left behind. For a nation like us that is dependent on fossil fuel, you would realise that when you travel, other countries are using more advanced ideas. For the International Energy Agency, which was created to ensure that there is ceaseless supply of fuel for energy globally, to start issuing warning that people should stop investing in oil and gas… that should tell you that there is a problem. Recall that the Dutch court also warned against the same thing.
As a legislator, it is important to come up with ideas on how to direct the thoughts and actions or investments on the government for the benefit of the electorates. The world is moving; the Chinese are planning to build a renewable energy agency in space, around 2050. Go to India and see their renewable energy exploits, over 7000 football field-sized spaces containing solar panels. Go and see what is going on in Saudi Arabia and Morocco! The Germans have been able to use renewable energy to raise their energy source to about 22 per cent. And an expert told me that that volume is enough to power half of Africa. Check what the Americans are doing with electric cars. Doesn’t that constitute a threat to an economy like ours that is dependent on fossil fuel?
Another reason is that I come from a place that is challenged by gully erosion. In my village, we have six active erosion sites. In my Federal Constituency, I have over 42. One thing I did when I entered office is to first solve two of them that were terrible; one of those erosion sites had forced people to migrate out of that town. Maybe this has helped me to become the first person to be re-elected in my constituency. If you go to my community, erosion has greatly cut off the road to the extend people can’t go to farms. The one I did in my place is over 43 meters deep. These are pains we live with. Areas where we grew up picking snails, or places like springs, have all closed up. I also know that coastal erosion has erased a lot of fishing communities around riverine areas, without people knowing, just because the impact did not come immediately like a Tsunami.
Of course, do you also want to talk about the challenge I refer to as the Sahel challenge, how the whole place has turned into dust, because of desertification that has suspended drought there year-in-year-out, forcing people to lose their means of livelihood and as a result, pushing them into forced migration. Look at what has happened in Chad, you see that when these people are pushed out, they go to uncharted territory and what you have there is clashes, fight, and conflict. That is why in this National Council, you also have the National Security Adviser as a member of the council. These are some of the things that pushed me towards sustaining this fight knowing that the world is transiting and transiting rapidly and we need to catch up.
This is a large nation and most of the people are young people who have a lot of energy in them, but they need opportunities, because if we can reposition and restructure as a nation, these people will find a lot of jobs to do and I addressed it when I spoke at the Scottish Parliament. On the outside, it looks like a ticking time bomb, but on the reverse side, you’d know that it is investors haven.
Just cast your mind back to what happened during the telecommunications privatisation; we were asking the best of telecommunications around the world to come in and they said it was a bad risk, but those who came in are still smiling. So, if we position ourselves very well, we will get investments. It will help us to move forward; it will create employment for our young people.
As someone who has been on this for years, does it bother you that a lot of us are still living in the past when it comes to climate change?
I commend Mr. President for the kind of admirable leadership that he displayed in signing this bill; it’s a huge achievement for him, for his administration, for the nation and by extension, for the world. This makes him a promise keeper and a jinx breaker. A promise keeper in that in his inaugural address, he said that he would fight climate change and he has never stopped, because I recall that he has been going all out to sign the Paris agreement on climate change and he has been to so many other places. He has really shown leadership and so, he deserves recognition, commendation and maybe emulation from other leaders.
There are people that did not pay attention to it until it assumed a new status; it bothered and still bothers me. I remember an instance when I wrote to the director of defense to write on how climate affects the ministry; she came to my office to challenge me on what climate has to do with defense. I had to explain the implications of climate change before she understood.
Sometimes, when I call several meetings for awareness on the issue of climate change, I discovered that a lot of people, whenever they seemed to step out of line with their bosses, were sent to climate change unit as a form of punishment.
In order to cure the mischief in administration, we have made it a statutory requirement that key focus ministry should have a department on climate change and should be headed by someone of a directorate status to eliminate the idea of people not knowing what is going on and to be sure that provisions are made in the budget to run climate change issues in this department across the ministry, because climate change is cross-cutting.
You were at the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow with President Buhari and other stakeholders from Nigeria. As a country, how did we fare during the conference, particularly as it concerns commitments?
Overall, I think we fared very well in that our president made a landmark commitment and pointed out that Nigeria as a Nation wants to transit, but we are looking for investors in technology and innovation. He also participated in so many high level meetings. There was one he had with Jeff Bezos where he promised to invest about N10billion towards adaptation and that singular action has encouraged other investors to contribute.
Also, the creation of the Great Green Wall was an initiative by the African Union, after they found out that a certain section of Africa was beginning to turn into dust and there was need for it. We also did well with our NDCs; the NDC we submitted in June highlighted the key sectors of our nation and we marked them out clearly. Between 2015 when we first submitted our INDC and 2017, we said that our non-conditional percentage was 20 per cent and we put our conditional on 45 per cent. But it’s important to note that we’ve been able to move from that 45 per cent to 47 per cent in terms of commitment, which is significant. And then Mr. President strongly advertised our position.
Also, I had the opportunity of presenting a paper at the Scottish parliament. And I said that despite Nigeria’s rising population and dependency on fossil fuel, we have achieved some things. We have done a lot of work with gender, NDC, and a lot of other things. I also showed them the legal framework for the climate bill. As at then, we were just awaiting assent. I also showed them the Supreme Court decision of 2019 between NNPC and Center for Pollution. The Supreme Court ruled that on issues concerning pollution, we don’t wait to have local standing before taking it up; pollution itself is borderless.
I also told the parliament that we need to have the developed countries to redeem their promises, for our transition to go smoothly. In this part of the world, our emission levels are below 4 per cent. We need support; we need help. We cannot transit without preparations, because we are likely to transit into hunger and crisis. Therefore, this transition has to be just; it should be inclusive. It must carry the vulnerable communities as well. If we are left behind by the developed world, it will have a ripple effect, because pollution is borderless.
It seems some Nigerians see climate change as a ‘big man’ issue?
That was why I talked about a senior director who is well educated. I would like to decode the composition of the national council on climate change; the act has democratised it. It aims to carry along, even those who are most affected. When a poor woman inhales smoke and it blocks her lungs, is she aware? About 7 to 8 million people die annually from respiratory issues and other problems stemming from climate change. So, awareness is important.
In this view, we have in the council’s composition youths, the private sector, the CBN Governor, the ministers, governor’s forum, and others. It is vital to involve the private sector players, because those are the ones that have factories across the country, which also contribute to pollution; there should be at least one person representing that sector. Similarly, we have representatives from other sectors in this council.
On education, we have climate change education. The Act provides that climate change should be integrated into our educational curricula; the threat itself is existential in nature. Therefore, the response must be so strong to tackle it with an aim to eliminating it or reducing it. From schools, children must begin to know what this means to us.
The high cost of cooking gas is forcing families to resort to using firewood and charcoal. How do we deal with this?
If we started preparing early, in terms of policy consistency, maybe we would have reached a level of progress. This is why government is a continuum. When Mr. President was commissioning a rail project, he mentioned that he wasn’t the one that started it, but he finished it. The fact that party A took over doesn’t mean we should stop what Party B was doing. If by the time he leaves office, the president’s successor maintains the same tempo, then we would make progress.
What is most important is to leverage on gas as a bridge for transiting. This gas that we have from Ajaokuta to Kano among others should be distributed. For instance, in Lagos, some areas have already received gas; we have gas. As at January, our gas reserves were recorded to be 206.5trn cubic feet. That is massive. That is what I was talking about as stranded critical assets. We must try to use them now.
Gas is also something we can leverage, if we can distribute it to rural areas and make it affordable. It is policy inconsistency that is the bottleneck with it. If we pursue this thing consistently, we would get to where we need to be. But I am not downplaying the fact that people are pressured to return to their old ways.
As an advocate for climate change, how did you feel when the bill was eventually assented to by Mr President?
I felt very happy; I also felt relieved, I felt vindicated. A few of my friends usually teased me as ‘rainmaker.’ I felt great knowing that the bill was assented into law, I felt very happy. It gives me that sense that we are on a new trajectory. With this, you are going to see a lot of more foreign investment. I thank Mr. President for signing the bill into law.
I also want to thank the Speaker of the House of Representatives; he was with me all the way, he really encouraged me. Even when he was away, the deputy speaker took over. The National Assembly bureaucracy, the Clerk and the Deputy Clerk Admin were admirable.
One woman I must mention is the Minister of State for Environment, Sharon Ikeazor; she was on this matter. Everyone was asking her about the Climate Change Bill, but she insisted that Nigeria would properly ensure the legal framework first. I also thank my colleagues in the Assembly; so many other persons too. Of course, I thank my family for always helping me, especially in carrying big books. To the glory of God, this would put Nigeria in a growth path. Investments would come in; employment will come. Wherever there is a mischief, then the bill can cure it via amendment. Even in this bill, it is clearly stated that there must be reporting to the Council.
What’s next regarding the Climate Change Act?
We will go into inauguration. Let me clarify that just as we have arms of government, everyone plays his own part. But in playing your role, you must understand that there are checks and balances. We have put the law in place, in collaboration with the executive. The rest now lies with the executive arm of government to inaugurate the Council and get it running. This act has certain timelines to be followed; we cannot waste so much of it. Given the kind of importance Mr. President has showered on this, I am sure he will do it in no time; he also feels the pain. From his area, one can see what havoc desertification and drought have inflicted.