8 February 2018

Nigeria: Climate Change - Should You Be Worried?


It depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. On a visit to a village in rural Kano a few years ago a farmer said to me, "to have a blessed rainy season and enough food to feed my family for a year - that is the ultimate success." This seemingly simple goal may be unattainable in the future due to something beyond his control. According to scientists, climate change presents an unfortunate and unfair paradox for Africa. It is the continent that contributes least to climate change, but its people will be most affected by it.

Let's be clear, climate change is real, the world is warming and human activity is largely to blame. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that we are actively changing our climate at an unprecedented rate by emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), and the science behind this is rock solid. Don't be fooled by the disproportionate press given to climate change deniers, especially in the USA. Most of them are aligned to "Big Oil" with vested interests in the status quo. They make colourful reading, but we in Africa cannot afford to entertain these notions, precisely because we are least equipped to deal with its impacts.

First - the science. The earth's atmosphere naturally contains gases which absorb heat radiated from earth and act as a blanket of sorts, keeping the earth at a nice average temperature of about 150C. These are known as greenhouse gases and include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour and a few other gases in smaller concentrations. However when the industrial age began, we (or more precisely the industrialised nations) started pumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and other GHGs into the atmosphere. More GHGs in the atmosphere obviously mean more heat absorption and retention, and the earth gets warmer. Our oceans also absorb heat and become warmer, and in addition absorb a large amount of CO2 and become more acidic. When we cut down trees, we not only stop them from absorbing CO2, we also release the carbon stored in them when we burn them. In sub Saharan Africa, industry contributes only marginally to GHG emissions, most emissions come from deforestation and burning, and agricultural practices. But our contribution is still a fraction of what the developed world (including China) emits.

Africa's dependence on natural resources - agriculture, forestry and fisheries- makes it especially vulnerable to the effect of rising temperatures, rise in sea levels and change in rainfall patterns. West Africa in particular is regarded as one of the hot spots of climate change and is projected to experience a rise in temperature of 3-60C. If you think 30 is not a lot, consider that the difference between earth's temperature now and the last ice age is 40C. So a 10 rise in earth's temperature is a big deal.

Climate change increases the occurrence of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, wildfires and hurricanes. It will affect water resources and influence the incidence and spread of diseases. A rise in temperature means many countries in Africa could lose up to 20% of yields especially of cereals such as sorghum, millet and wheat, which are sensitive to temperature and rainfall changes. Ocean acidification makes waters more acidic and harmful to fish. A warmer earth leads to melting of ice in polar regions, leading to rising sea levels and putting many coastal cities such as, New York, Miami, and Lagos at risk. All the above, combined with poverty, rapid population rise, and a lack of infrastructure and safety nets makes us in Africa especially vulnerable.

Ultimately, however, the challenge of climate change is actually one of energy. Clean, cheap, and renewable energy. Energy production is the biggest contributor to climate change through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), and accounts for about 75% of GHG emissions. So far, only about 5% of the world's electricity comes from solar and wind. Energy in the form of electricity improves lives and gives benefits and opportunities. However, almost a billion and half people in the world do not have access to electricity, out of which a majority are Africans. Factor in the expected doubling of Africa's population by 2050, among which Nigeria alone will account for 350 million, all of whom will need energy for development. Cheap and clean energy sources will not only slow down climate change, but will also improve the lives of billions of people.

The Paris accord (from which President Trump famously pulled out in 2017) was hailed because it was an agreement by almost all countries to curb their emissions such that the rise in earth's temperature does not exceed 1.50C. But many scientists agree that it's probably too late, because to achieve this there has to be a spectacular and unparalleled change from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy, and in addition we will have to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we can (carbon capture and storage). This is because even if emissions are curbed, the world will continue to warm because once emitted carbon dioxide lasts for a long time in the atmosphere. To achieve the Paris target, we have to stop emissions and then remove a lot of what we have already put out.

In the words of Bill Gates we need an energy miracle.

If you believe that science will be able to deliver this energy miracle by sheer force of necessity, then you needn't worry. But if you believe that we are running out of time, and it seems improbable that we will make the switch to cheap and clean energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before it's too late, then you have cause to worry.

Either way business as usual is no longer an option.

Dr Baba wrote this piece from Kaduna State University


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