Godwin Ojo: Fighter for Environmental Justice

On the Monday following the inconclusive end to the Climate Change Conference in The Hague at the end of November, Spectre caught up with Godwin Ojo, programme director of Environmental Rights Action, Friends of the Earth's Nigerian affiliates, and a member of the executive of FoE International. Most of our discussion was on climate change and what it might mean to people in developing countries, but we also found time to talk about the more general problems facing Nigeria's people and environmental activists in a country which, in recent times, has seen more than its share of ecological destruction, violence and corruption.

SPECTRE: I talked to all of the Euro-MPs who were present in The Hague and I was struck by their collective insistence on a number of points. What will also be somewhat surprising, I'm sure, for most of our readers was that on this occasion the European Union was certainly not the biggest threat. Why, for example, do you think that the EU, enthusiastically backed by MEPs, and not just those from the left and environmental movements, was more willing than other industrialised countries or blocs to look at the issue of how you get effective compliance with the Protocol?

GODWIN OJO: I'm not very knowledgeable about how the EU works but I do know that interest groups tend to dominate in any political setting and the climate change conference was no different. The EU is, on a day-to-day level, more concerned with environmental justice than is, for example, the US, no matter what the propaganda of the latter may lead people to believe. The EU countries find it easier to see the need to finance adaptation and the mechanisms which will be put in place. This will of course demand huge sums of money and the Americans are unwilling to commit such sums because of pressure from industry and from the people themselves. They don't accept that a country's emission rights should be equitable, and they in effect put a much higher value on an American life than they do on the life of a person in Africa. The US is playing to the gallery and trying to forestall an agreement. They are unable to come to terms with the demands of environmental justice. In any case, proposed implementation strategies have been lacking in many respects because they have not incorporated or addressed the question of equity. To try to differentiate the level of carbon a nation should emit without having regard to the issue of equity does nothing to solve the problem.

SPECTRE: Clearly we are agreed that industrialised countries should take the lead, that the polluter should pay. Nevertheless, developing countries have a role to play. How do you see that role?

OJO: Developing countries are for the most part confused about this. The assessment required to determine the energy and climate change-connected needs of a country and region have not been carried out, making any strategy difficult to develop. The responsibility of developing countries primarily takes the form of a challenge to us to evolve a new technological concept, one which must rely on the development of renewable energy sources. Technology transfer is all very well, but it will be indigenous technology which will carry the day. We need more research, and we need the industries involved in developing countries to take cognisance of the need for renewable technologies.

SPECTRE: Is this a particular problem in Nigeria and other oil-producing countries?

OJO: Nigeria will eventually come to terms with the new technologies. Until the 1960s there was no oil, but the economy was buoyant, there was no deficit. With the discovery of oil all other sectors have been undermined. We cannot continue being dependant on an unsustainable commodity – it can run out, or become obsolete through technological change and resultant changes in demand. We can play a role in evolving a new renewable technology to provide energy alternatives.

SPECTRE: Another point of agreement amongst MEPs was that domestic measures and policies taken by the industrialised countries should carry the major burden of fulfilling the Protocol commitments, with the so-called flexible mechanisms (see below for explanation of this term) playing a secondary and limited role. Why is this such an important demand?

OJO: This is very simple. The industrialised countries caused the problem, they should provide a solution.

SPECTRE: Carbon sinks (see below) were a particular sticking point. What do you think of allowing countries to claim credits for planting trees, for example?

OJO: To allow carbon sinks in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM-see below) would be totally wrong. We already have other agencies and opportunities to deal with deforestation. Instead of carbon sinks, carbon credits should be given to countries able to avoid polluting technologies. If a country invests in renewables then the resulting avoidance of polluting technologies should count as credits. To think of carbon credits being given for any fossil fuel technology is unacceptable. CDM should not include fossil fuel or sinks.

SPECTRE: What should be allowed into the CDM?

OJO: Renewables. The protocol stresses that any meaningful action should begin at home. Sinks are a diversion.

SPECTRE:The flexible mechanisms (see below) seem almost designed for those who want to find loopholes.

OJO: Yes, there is a great deal of negative creativity exerted in looking out for loopholes. My advice to the South would be to be very alert. Technical knowledge should develop to a level where the developing countries can easily counter these things. Negotiations are conducted and consensus reached amongst developed countries and this process goes a long way before the South is brought into the picture. This is a serious problem, and one solution would be to allow the participation of civil society and NGOs. We find that whereas developing countries have not even presented their country reports to NGOs, in the North NGOs work with official delegations in total harmony.

SPECTRE: What can we do about the United States' unwillingness to contemplate an effective and binding set of rules?

OJO: First we need to have the US sign the protocol. Then we can look at the document as binding. So any action taken by the US after the signature can be seen as non-compliance. Any action will be taken within this context. We need to look at the question of liability. Floods, droughts – these are problems due to climate change. Who's responsible then? We need to look at this critically with a view to taking court action. This is not beyond the capacity of world civil society.

SPECTRE: Some environmentalists take the optimistic view that the US attitude will soon change, because industry there will realise that climate change is a potentially profitable piece of business? Do you agree?

OJO: The only thing that is constant is change. Whatever is promised now might become effective if indeed industry begins to put pressure on politicians to change. Economic gains tend to come first, even if there are well-meaning environmentalists in the US.

SPECTRE: Hostility to effective action on climate change tends to be based on claims that it will have negative economic effects, leading to lost jobs and undermining a country's competitiveness. How do you answer these arguments?

OJO: We are looking at the reorganisation of a whole economic system. That is part of the climate change agenda. We want to change to a better way – through cleaner and more innovative technologies which will lead to the cutting of emissions. In the short term this will certainly have both negative and positive repercussions in terms of structures. But the direct benefit will be to the health of people and the environment and that's what we want to secure first. There is a lot of talk of unemployment – but in what way will this happen? If you cut emissions will it reduce profits? We're asking industry to invest, to take a first step towards developing new technologies from which they can gain in future. There may be some temporary setbacks but overall it will be profitable. Because you invest you'll be meeting required standards and for that you gain credits which will pay for whatever negatives we have in the short term.

SPECTRE: The Dutch environment minister claims to remain optimistic, and insists that the talks are merely suspended and will resume soon. On the other hand, the Danish environment minister said that reaching any kind of agreement in The Hague would have been a miracle. Given US intransigence, perhaps the best outcome we could have hoped for was just what happened. Or do you share Dutch Minister Pronk's optimism.

OJO: I think that Pronk's position is realistic. Climate change is real. If we want to deal with this reality then its possible for us to do so. I share the Dutch minister's optimism, despite the failure. But I also agree completely that a bad agreement would be much worse than no agreement. When they are ready to make a deal then it will be done. It's a question of will and sincerity to meet the challenges of climate change.

SPECTRE: A lot of Spectre's readers would see what happened in The Hague as confirmation that desperately needed measures are simply not possible without first overturning the established order, that however remote that prospect might be, the alternative, to believe that the system is reformable, is hopelessly utopian. Doesn't the failure of COP-6 (see below) confirm that, even in the face of global catastrophe, the inexorable logic of profit will prevail?

OJO: If I don't understand international politics, then I think I at least understand those of my own country and of Africa. Multinationals have totally grabbed the reins of government, to the extent that economic concerns overrule all other interests . Industry uses the pressure it is able to bring to bear on government in order to continue to degrade the environment, overexploit crude oil resources, destroy people's livelihoods, pollute the waterways - they can' t even be brought to acknowledge the damage they are doing, let alone clean it up. On the international scene it is surely the same. They don't care a hoot about the environment. What is their driving force? Profit, profit and more profit. Human rights violations, climate change, none of it matters. Climate change even to the point of disaster is business.

SPECTRE: So what on earth can we do if we can't get power off them and we can't get them to behave responsibly?

OJO: What we can do is continue the struggle. Never relent in this struggle. At the same time we continue the process of negotiation, we educate, we produce information, background notes, so that we are all in a position to understand what the other person is talking about. We're not going to have global revolution but you can win changes, changes which can be gradual. The idea of equity in negotiation is vital, and education is needed for people fully to understand what the Protocol means. We need understanding - if we understand each other we can move forward.

SPECTRE: Given that the emission cuts agreed at Kyoto are too small to make much difference, does any of this matter?

OJO: I agree totally that the emission cuts are too small, but you have to make a start. Getting people to agree to cut emissions is the first step, then we can talk about by how much, about monetary issues. We should look beyond the agreed emission levels We must begin by saying that we are asking you to do so little but while you are doing so little recognise that you need to do much more.

SPECTRE: So what would a perfect Protocol look like, one which really would make a difference?

OJO: Number One, it's essential that it be based primarily on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the industrialised countries at home. Two, there should be a movement away from fossil fuel development towards renewable and sustainable energy sources. When you do that there will be drastic reductions. At least you're not going to increase emissions in the future, because by simply investing in renewables you will be taking effective action. Three, it is vital that the industrialised countries assist the South in developing cleaner technologies, that they prevent MNCs from allowing their subsidiary companies to continue polluting the South. It is the industry of the North relocated to South that is causing the emissions.

SPECTRE: To conclude on a different topic, could we take this opportunity to ask you to tell us something about the environmental struggle in Nigeria? Spectre has had some correspondence with members of ERA and our impression was that it's a dangerous business.

OJO: Yes, environmental activists in Nigeria sleep with one eye open. Even though there are changes going on, this is still so. MNCs, especially Shell, have not repented. Repentance means first that you acknowledge that you've done something wrong. Then you make a statement that you won't do it any more. Next comes restitution. Compensation. In this case Shell and others must pay to clean up the environmental damage they have caused. We've been asking this for years but Shell and other MNCs continue to wash their hands clean of environmental problems. They tell another story in Europe but in the South they have a different briefing. They are responsible, and we are calling on them to admit it and pay compensation for disrupted and destroyed lives.

SPECTRE: What sort of changes are occurring?

OJO: ERA now issues fewer press releases, simply because elected bodies from federal to state level have taken on the campaign for self determination and resource control. Rather than resources accruing to the centre people are now yearning for a true federalism which will allow a proportion to be paid to the centre and the bulk to be controlled at home. We have long agitated for this and that is what many elected representatives are now saying. There is a growing awareness of the need to halt environmental degradation, the pollution of waterways and the destruction of livelihoods.

SPECTRE: Our readers aren't generally rich, but most of them live in developed countries where environmental problems are pressing but most people are still able to live decent lives. What are the implications of environmental degradation for the poorest people in your country?

OJO: It is like sentencing them to death. The impact of environmental degradation on the poor in Nigeria amounts to just that, to sentencing them to death. The rural poor have no access to government, in terms of infrastructure they have little or nothing to gain from government. No electricity, no energy, no hospitals, they have to fend for themselves by using resources available in the environment. They depend on the forest for medicines, for cash crops, subsistence, for game. They depend on the waters for fish. Anything which undermines these resources – it's like destroying someone's employment.

SPECTRE: So in the end, defence of the environment, the central principle of "green" politics, and the fight against poverty, which should be the priority of every progressive activist, turn out to be intimately connected.

OJO: We all have common needs – shelter, clean air, water, food. What worries me is that industry and big nations will continue to think that everything will be okay, without having regard for other people and their needs for these things. This is what I find disturbing. This is a moral question, a question of conscience. Winner takes all is fine for the winner – but what do you want the loser to do, cease to exist? Everyone has an equal right to access to the world's resources. The pattern of resource distribution is very important. MNCs control the major resources of the world and so they are able to dictate the terms of trade of those resources. Why is deforestation continuing in Nigeria? Because a very low duty is placed on exports of raw materials but a high tariff is imposed on finished timber products. So we have to send raw materials to the EU and the United States. Free trade means that you come to Africa and take it for free.

SPECTRE: What can readers can do about this? What can we who live in developed countries do for people suffering the kind of treatment you have talked about in your own country, or, more generally, to help and express our solidarity with those in developing countries who want to resist?

OJO: Information flow is vital. Ensure that you service NGOs and people working on the ground, in the field. We need to build our own capacity, we need training for people in the field, in the process of negotiation, and we need more research. These are the key issues. We are looking to empower local communities, to bring empowerment through education, and at the national and international level we require the expertise to be able to discourse on international issues.

GODWIN OJO was talking to Steve McGiffen and Marjorie Tonge. The interview took place on 27th November, 2000, at Friends of the Earth International's offices in Amsterdam.


A very quick guide to the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol establishes a commitment period between 2008 and 2012 in which average emissions of six greenhouse gases for industrialised nations – known as Annex 1 countries – are to be 5.2% below 1990 levels. Individual allowable emissions targets or "assigned amounts" are set for different nations. For example Canada is to reduce its emissions by 6%; the US by 7%; and the EU member states by an average 8%. The Protocol's intention was clearly that these reductions be achieved by changing energy sources away from fossil fuels, by promoting renewables such as wind power, by developing new technologies and by conservation. However, a number of other approaches were allowed which are now being turned into massive loophloes by the US, Japan, Canada and other energy-hungry rich countries. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows Annex 1 countries to gain credits which can be offset against their emission reduction targets by investing in projects in developing countries which have measurable and long-term benefits in tackling climate change. A problem here is defining what should be in the CDM – some even argue for nuclear power. Annex 1 nations may also buy and sell from each other "emission reduction units resulting from projects" if the projects provide "a reduction in emissions or enhancement of sinks that is additional to what would otherwise occur." One problem here is the inclusion of Russia and Ukraine, which paid for their much-vaunted freedom by seeing their economies virtually disappear. Unfortunately, their reduction targets were set before liberation, so have already been met by the excellent green programme of closing down entire industries – something Thatcher pioneered in the UK in the 1980s. This means that non-existent emissions – dubbe d "hot air" can also be traded. When emission reduction units are bought by a nation they are added to that nation's allowable emissions and subtracted from the allowable emissions of the nation transferring them. "Sinks" refers to the possibility of using forests, which in some phases of their cycle absorb the major greenhouse gas CO2, to offset against emission targets. The idea is that by afforestation in a developing country or at home, an Annex 1 country can offset some of its reduction commitment. problems here are legion – the main one is that the "science" behind the sinks theory seems to have come from a research institute located in a remote region of fairy land. It's pure, polluting, 100% garbage. If you want to know why, go to the Cornerhouse site and look up their Briefing Paper No 15. A final point is that the Protocol is supposed to come into force when 55% of the participating countries, as well as countries representing 55% of the total population of all participants, have ratified it – so far no Annex 1 country has done so. One thing they are arguing about is "compliance" – what you do to those countries who break the rules. The conference in The Hague was known as COP 6 because it was the sixth "Conference of the Parties" – participants in the UN Climate Change Convention. It is expected to resume in the spring, possibly in Bonn. The full text of the Kyoto Protocol is online available. Or read all about the climate change issue at www.heatisonline.org