Tuesday, June 10, 2008

World Environment Day 2008: Our carbon economy

THE emphasis on the reduction of carbon emission in this year's World Environment Day presents a major challenge to Nigeria where actions and decisions of government in the energy sector are not empowering people to be active agents of sustainable and equitable development. Instead, people are forced to do things that promote a carbon economy. An economy that is virtually running on generators that emit large quantities of carbon daily can aptly be described as a carbon economy. How to deal with the intractable energy problem, which is at the root of it all, is the main problem.

This year's World Environment Day (WED) was held on Thursday, June 5, with the slogan "Kick the Habit! Towards a Low Carbon Economy". WED is an annual event established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on Human Development. A resolution by the General Assembly the same day led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

The main international celebrations of the event were held in the city of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The agenda, according to the organisers, is "to give human face to environmental issues" by empowering people to be agents of sustainable and equitable development; "promote an understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes towards environmental issues and advocate partnerships. All these are geared towards ensuring that nations and peoples "enjoy a safer and prosperous future".

Since a year ago when the last WED was marked on June 5, 2007, not much has been done to address major environmental issues facing the country. At the national level, for instance, there is little faith in the deadline given by the federal government to the oil companies to stop gas flaring by December 2008. The Yar'Adua administration is being tempted to push back the deadline.

Nigeria reportedly flares about 2.5 million cubic feet of gas daily resulting in a revenue loss of over $2.5 billion annually. It is sad and pathetic that the federal government and its oil joint-venture partners failed to appreciate from the outset the gravity of gas flaring to the environment and the economic wastage it portends. Gas flaring is injurious and harmful to the biotic environment and it is a major source of carbon, which is the main causing agent of greenhouse effect that is instrumental to climate change.

Not until the federal government takes a more drastic step to compel the oil companies to put a complete stop to the obnoxious practice of gas flaring would Nigeria be free from the associated pollution and health problems that are largely unreported. The fine option introduced recently for none compliance or default may not debar the companies from flaring gas except the amount payable is punitive enough.

There are other issues that are being promoted in this year's WED event, which are very relevant to Nigeria. I have earlier talked about the energy crisis in the country and its contributory role in not promoting a low carbon economy. UNEP is promoting a campaign on energy conservation as a way of reducing pollution. Nations and peoples around the world are urged to shun the regular light bulbs and instead use the readily available energy saving bulbs.

Barring the fact that Nigerians receive epileptic power supply, which in recent times degenerated into total darkness across the country, there is yet no conscious effort to promote the use of the energy saving electric bulbs in the country. There is no energy to conserve! About 80 per cent of the electric bulbs used in the country are still the traditional brand high energy consuming bulbs. There is no policy on what type of bulbs should be used in the country. This is not yet perceived as an issue.

Nigerians are burdened with the energy crisis. People are more concerned with purchasing generators and fueling them amid the high cost of diesel. Having electricity generated in the home or office is the preoccupation. There is no thought about the brand of bulbs used and whether or not it conserves energy or dissipate it. In the same vein, there is no thought about whether or not the generating set emits carbon.

Assuming, conservatively, that 50 per cent of the population is using generating sets in Nigeria (with estimated 148 million people), which would translate to about 24 million generators actively in operation in the country. But given the ugly power supply situation, if 75 per cent of the population is using generators that would mean about 36 million generators are currently in use throughout the country. The amount of carbon emitted under the circumstance is enormous. When this is added to the amount of carbon released into Nigeria's environment through gas flaring, it becomes obvious that there can be no low carbon economy in a country like Nigeria in the foreseeable future.

There is also the issue of exploring environmentally friendly sources of power supply in place of the traditional polluters. So far, hydropower and gas fired stations constitute the main sources of power supply. The general thinking worldwide is to switch over to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power.

Interestingly, Nigeria has abundant supply of these sources of energy. All over the country, the radiant solar energy received is wasted. The same goes to wind power, which could be harnessed all over the country, especially in the drier north. Whereas, countries in the cold temperate regions of the world that have limited supply of these energy sources are harnessing them to boost their domestic energy supply, Nigeria is doing practically nothing to take advantage of these forms of cleaner and renewable energy sources that are wasting away. Consequently, there is little or no consideration of integrating these sources of energy into the framework energy policy.

With regard to transportation, Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the world with the kind of huge population that has no mass transit system. The railway system is comatose. Within the major urban centres, private mini buses dominate the transport system. The result is that in a city like Lagos with well over 14 million people, more than half of the population use private cars. This is the root of the traumatic transport situation experienced in Lagos.

Apart from that, it is reported that about 70 per cent of the cars used in Nigeria are second hand. These cars, which have been used in foreign countries, are imported into the country for that is what the economy could carry. These cars are crazy polluters on the road. There is no differentiation in the grade of petrol used.

In an attempt to curb vehicular pollution, among others, government not quite long ago put a restriction on the age limit of vehicles imported into the country to eight years. Somehow, this has reduced the problem of pollution but the number of vehicles on the road at any time is critical.

Besides, the gains made by restricting the importation of overused vehicles have been thwarted by the emergence of commercial motorcycles (okada) as a means of transport. There is no age limitation on the importation of motorcycles. The result is that the country has been flooded with millions of these machines, which are freely used for transportation all over the country.

As a matter of fact, there is massive vehicular pollution in Nigeria especially in the thickly populated cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano. Attempts to ban okada in some towns have not solved much problem. Also, the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) in Lagos has not changed the situation.

Looking at the prospects for promoting future cleaner and healthy environment, it is obvious that Nigeria is not in a hurry to move along with other countries. Nigeria is still battling with basic environmental problems like soil erosion, desertification and deforestation.

Along the shoreline in the south, there is massive coastal erosion aggravated by ocean surge. Our cities are generally filthy. With the exception of Lagos State that has established structures to deal with urban sanitation, no other state is making conscious effort in that regard. The Imo State Government has in the past year or so been pursuing a Clean and Green programme in Owerri the state capital. The programme has reportedly enhanced the aesthetic condition of the city that was literally turned to a dump yard.

There is need for Nigeria to redouble its efforts on issues concerning the environment. The crisis in the Niger Delta, for instance, could be described as environmental. It is a fallout of years of neglect of the oil rich region leading to severe environmental degradation. The Nigerian authorities at all levels should wake up and tackle the emerging environmental problems with more concern and commitment to save the future of the country.