Reviews | Muhammadu Buhari: How not to talk with Africa about climate change


Muhammadu Buhari is the President of Nigeria.

Part of my nation is under water. Seasonal flooding is normal in Nigeria, but not like this. Thirty-four of the country’s 36 states have been affected. More than 1.4 million people have been displaced. With drought-induced famine in the Horn of Africa, cascading wildfires in the North and intensifying cyclone waves in the South, climate disasters in Africa form the backdrop for the Conference. United Nations on Climate Change (known as COP27) in Egypt.

Many of my peers are frustrated with Western hypocrisy and its failure to take responsibility. Governments have repeatedly defaulted on their commitments to the $100 billion fund for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world – for the mess caused by their own industries. According to the United Nations, Africa is the continent most affected by climate change, although it contributes the least to it. Even though the COP27 agenda notes the need for compensation for loss and damage (as opposed to funding for adaptation and mitigation), this demand has generally been met with silence in the West.

Amid this simmering acrimony, I offer some words of advice to Western negotiators at this year’s COP27. They should help the West avoid exacerbating what the UN Secretary General called “a climate of mistrust” enveloping our world. Some of the demands of the countries of the South seem obvious. But the experience of the recent past suggests that they need to be repeated.

First, rich countries should devote a greater share of funds to developing nations adapting to the effects of climate change. Most funding currently goes to mitigation projects, such as renewable energy projects, that reduce emissions. While such projects have their uses, much more money is needed to help Africa adapt to the effects of climate change – which seems fair for a continent that produces less than 3% of global emissions.

Africa urgently needs investments in adaptive infrastructure – such as flood prevention systems – to avert disasters that destroy communities and cripple economies.

Second, don’t tell Africans they can’t use their own resources. If Africa were to use all of its known reserves of natural gas – the cleanest transitional fossil fuel – its share of global emissions would drop from just 3% to 3.5%.

We are not the problem. Yet the continent needs a reliable source of energy if it is to lift millions of citizens out of poverty and create jobs for its burgeoning young population. Africa’s future must be carbon free. But today’s energy demands cannot yet be met by weather-dependent solar and wind power alone.

Don’t tell Africa the world can’t afford the climate cost of its hydrocarbons – and don’t fire up coal-fired power stations every time Europe feels an energy shortage. Don’t tell the world’s poorest that their marginal energy consumption will break the carbon budget — only to sign new national permits for oil and gas exploration. This gives the impression that your citizens have a greater right to energy than Africans.

Third, when you realize you need Africa’s reserves, don’t deprive its citizens of the benefits. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, there has been renewed interest in African gas. But this impetus comes from Western companies – backed by their governments – who are only interested in extracting these resources and then exporting them to Europe.

Gas financing that benefits Africa as well as the West is clearly lacking. At last year’s COP, Western governments and multilateral lenders pledged to halt all funding for fossil fuel projects abroad. Without these pools of capital, Africa will struggle to harness the gas needed to increase its own domestic electricity supply. Consequently, its development and industrialization will suffer. Donor countries do not believe that the developing world is exploiting its own hydrocarbons even as they pursue new oil and gas projects within their own borders.

Western development has triggered a climate catastrophe on my continent. Now the green policies of rich countries dictate that Africans should stay poor for the greater good. To compound the injustice, Africa’s hydrocarbons will be exploited after all, but not for Africans.

Fourth, follow your own logic. Africa is being told that the falling cost of renewables means it must leapfrog carbon-emitting industries. At the same time, Western governments are effectively paying their citizens to burn more hydrocarbons: lavish subsidy packages have been devised to offset skyrocketing energy bills. Meanwhile, Africa is the continent closest to carbon neutrality. It reserves the right to plug holes in its energy mix with resources from its soil, especially when they will make almost no difference to global emissions.

Western countries are incapable of making politically difficult decisions that harm them internally. Instead, they shift the problem overseas, essentially dictating that the developing world should swallow the pill too bitter for the palates of its own constituents. Africa did not cause the mess, but we are paying the price. At this year’s COP, this should be the starting point for all negotiations.

Teresa H. Sadler