Susty Person of the Month, June 2019 – Interview
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
In this interview with SustyVibes, I discuss my work and other issues surrounding the energy sector in Nigeria. SustyVibes is a Nigerian enterprise that is promoting sustainable development across Africa.
What informed your passionate interest in Energy Systems? During my A-levels, I read Prof David Mackay’s book ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ which discussed the potential of renewable energy to meet the energy needs of the world. It was clear that climate change would be the defining issue of our generation, even if most people didn’t know it yet. In applying for university, I wanted to pursue a career that would allow to me to contribute to tackling climate change hence my choice to study chemical engineering—a conventional route to working in the energy industry. During my undergraduate, I undertook projects that gave me greater technical knowledge of energy technologies but by the end, having read more on the area, it was clear to me that climate change is not an issue to be solved by engineers alone. It will require a coordinated effort on a scale hitherto unseen from engineers, policymakers, social scientists, economists, agriculturists, etc. Being from Nigeria and thus having experienced a decrepit energy system, I was also interested in energy from a development perspective. Naturally, the question that became the focus of my interest was how to develop energy systems that allow for rapid industrialisation and development, while addressing climate change. This is what has led me to where I am today –– pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD that allows to me assess potential pathways for a sustainable energy transition beyond the lens of an engineer. This involves assessing not just the technical and economic barriers to such a transition, but also how different socio-political contexts may accelerate or hinder climate change mitigation efforts.
Renewable energy sources are becoming a significant source of the world’s power. What impact will this have on extractive based economies like Nigeria?
I think we need to temper our optimism about renewable energy by looking at how fossil fuel demand is evolving. Fossil fuels have provided 85% of the world’s energy needs since the 1980s and this number has not changed. The recent proliferation of renewable energy sources has only satisfied the growth in energy demand, and not actually displaced any fossil fuel demand which is crucial if we are to deliver the Paris Agreement. Even the most climate-progressive modelling scenarios that I have seen show that fossil fuels will remain a significant part of the energy mix for decades to come, however we hope that increasingly stringent climate policy will accelerate their decline.
Should tougher climate policies be implemented by countries—especially the countries that consume the greatest amount of energy—, fossil fuel demand will begin to fall. Recent research has shown that this “peak oil” moment could mark a significant shift in the oil industry –– a shift from an era of ‘perceived scarcity’ of oil to abundance. As demand begins to fall, so too will prices. The oil producers that will be favoured in a ‘low oil price’ world will be the countries that have the lowest production costs (Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries). Nigeria has relatively higher production costs and produces much less oil than the countries aforementioned (hence cannot compete), so it is especially vulnerable in a world where fossil fuels matter less. We saw this vulnerability materialise during the oil price crash of 2014 which debilitated the economy. Therefore, regardless of the pace of change in the fossil fuel industry, it is clear that the future is one that will seek to use fossil fuels as minimally as possible. Any country with vision should be planning to wean themselves off a dependence on fossil fuels, whether for consumption or for export, and restructure its economy to be competitive in a greener world.
What’s your take on Nigeria’s plan to pursue coal (under the all options plan) as one of our sources of power?
I think the plan is misguided and should not be pursued. Coal is only the cheapest source of power when its social costs are not accounted for. The first social cost is of course the carbon emissions, which have created the problem of climate change; the detrimental effects of climate change—extreme weather patterns, increased frequency of droughts, declining crop yields—will be greatest in the tropics, in places like Nigeria. Burning coal also releases SOX and NOX gases, and particulate matter which create local air pollution. Many scientists have now independently established that pollution from coal mines and power plants increases premature mortality and exacerbates poor health. The technologies that can be used to minimise air pollution are very expensive; rather than implementing them, it is cheaper to pursue alternative energy technologies which would be cheaper. Lastly, coal (mines and plants) use a lot of water and the mining activities pollute local water supply. With increasing water stresses resulting from climate change and agriculture, the use of coal will pose a threat to water security. These social costs can have devastating effects on public health and sometimes fuel conflict and instability; South Africa is a case in point. For these reasons, I think Nigeria pursuing coal power would be a form of self-harm, and particularly unfair for the regions that will provide this coal (most of the coal seams are in Kogi and Enugu states). It makes even less sense when you consider the abundance of cleaner energy resources (natural gas and renewables) that Nigeria has available.
One of your core research areas is negative emissions technologies (NETs). What are some of the promises that NETs hold towards the mitigation of climate change and what are some of the threats that they pose? Because NET is a relatively new term, I think it is important to define it. Negative emissions technologies (NETs) refer to any anthropogenic activity that results in a removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They must not strictly be “technologies”; for example, afforestation/reforestation is considered to be a NET because trees take up carbon dioxide as they grow. However, because there is limited land for forests, ‘engineered’ NETs have been proposed. NETs have increasingly featured in the climate change mitigation debate because of the global inaction in addressing climate change. Research has shown that the extent of global warming (and hence, climate change) is determined by how much greenhouse gases have been put into the atmosphere over time, not just how much is being emitted today. So, if you have a way of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (particularly carbon dioxide, the most abundant one), this could minimise cumulative emissions and hence climate change. Essentially NETs could be the fix for the years of not doing anything significant to address climate change. Because of this, NETs present a moral hazard to climate change mitigation efforts. If there is a way to ‘clean up’ the mess that has been made historically, this could tempt governments/industries/people to continue to emit greenhouse gases in the short-term and not implement tougher climate policies.
More specifically, only two NETs have been proved to be technically feasible: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS). Without boring you with technical detail, BECCS require a lot of biomass (and hence, land) to deliver negative emissions. Therefore, by creating additional competition for land, BECCS poses threats to food security; water security and ecosystem services could also be affected, particularly biodiversity—if only one type of biomass is being grown for BECCS. Also, both technologies involve storing carbon dioxide underground. While this has been done in geological reservoirs, there is a lot of uncertainty about the long-term safety of gases stored underground.
While NETs could compensate for world’s slow response to climate change, the technologies often come with considerable risks and should not be considered a silver bullet. Rather all other forms of climate change mitigation—renewable energy, energy efficiency—should be aggressively pursued to minimise the need for NETs.
In one of your publications, you mentioned that, “Climate action has suffered from the myopia of political leadership globally.” In that wise, do you think global agreements like the Paris Accord geared towards halting climate change will yield expected outcomes?
As it is not a legally-binding agreement, I don’t think the Paris Agreement in its current form will be especially effective in halting climate change. Countries that do not comply with their nationally-determined contributions (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) lose nothing, but perhaps “goodwill” from other countries that stick to the agreement. We have seen how the USA’s decision to withdraw from the agreement has thrown international climate policy into some chaos, but there is no means to penalise their inaction. This does not spell doom for addressing climate change, however. I think one of the biggest reasons for the inaction on climate change in the past is its perception as a future threat; its impacts had, at the time, either not occurred or not been given visibility by mass media. Now, we see climate change manifesting as wildfires and weather extremes, and there is increasing public attention. The potential for climate change to exacerbate insecurity and conflict (and be a driver of them in itself) is becoming apparent; climate change has been identified to have contributed to the deadly herdsmen clashes in Nigeria, and crises in the Sahel and South America. The realisation of climate change as a threat to security and economy, coupled with the increasingly favourable economics of renewable energy technologies will do more to halt climate change than the Paris Agreement. Public discontent with inaction on climate change will force political action, as we have seen in the UK. It is crucial that we bring climate change into mainstream political discourse in Nigeria to increase public awareness and force national and sub-national governments to consider it in their plans for development.
My worry is that because the most devastating impacts of climate change will not be experienced in the countries that have the greatest responsibility for the problem and the capacity to address it, the resources needed by poorer countries to address climate change will be insufficient. It is important that African countries proactively engage with the UN and multilateral institutions to make these resources available. Simultaneously, African countries like Nigeria must also prioritise funds for local capacity-building to address climate change and undertake the necessary governance reforms that make it easier to access international climate finance.
The takeoff cost of renewable energy projects continues to be one of the greatest challenges for entrepreneurs in the sector. What can governments in Africa do to reduce takeoff cost for energy entrepreneurs?
Most of the barriers to investment in renewables in Africa are the barriers to investment in the region generally. Corruption, political risks/uncertainty (compliance with contracts, rule of law, etc.), and volatile local currencies are all disincentives for investment. Addressing these issues through governance/policy reform would enable greater renewable energy investment.
The lack of skilled workers to maintain and operate renewable energy projects, and lack of knowledge by government/regulators also hinder the development of projects. Local capacity-building is crucial. In Nigeria, electricity tariff is capped by the government at a price that does not allow industry players to get adequate returns on their investment; this means that existing assets are often not maintained and new investment is discouraged. There is considerable uncertainty in the support policies for renewable energy. Feed-in tariffs often only apply for small-scale projects that do not greatly contribute to de-risking investment at the scale necessary; in Nigeria, the tax break given to solar panel importers was reversed after a short while –– this highlights the political risk mentioned earlier. Fossil fuels remain significantly subsidised in some African countries; removing these subsidies will make the ‘real costs’ of fossil fuels apparent and make renewable energy more competitive. In Nigeria, the fuel subsidy runs into billions of dollars annually; imagine if that was used to support renewable energy.
Without mincing words, you have achieved a lot academically and professionally; do you have plans to return to Nigeria in the foreseeable future?
Yes, definitely. I hope to have completed my PhD early next year and I will be moving back to Nigeria immediately to do my NYSC. I plan to stay afterwards and work within the energy industry or perhaps the public sector in Nigeria.
Which of the SDGs is your favourite and why?
My work directly addresses SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 13 (climate action) so I am passionate about them and hope to establish a career that will ultimately contribute to achieving those goals. SDG 4, however, is my favourite. I am from Borno state, in northern Nigeria, which has been plagued by terrorism and insecurity for almost a decade now. Undoubtedly, the high levels of poverty, idleness and lack of education contributed to the fertile ground for an insurgency movement. The Boko Haram crisis has created a generation of orphans and displaced people, many of whom are traumatised having witnessed what no one should have to. The foundation of a developed economy is an educated population; to rebuild Borno (and more generally, northern Nigeria), education is paramount. SDG 4 (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”) stresses not just the importance of the availability of a quality education, but also its accessibility. Ensuring that opportunities are made available to everyone regardless of their economic or tribal background, and especially to those who have been disadvantaged by crises, is the first step to sustainable development.
How can we reach you for comments or questions?