Interview. ‘Twenty years ago, the call to leave fossil fuels in the ground was labeled idealistic, and now even the conservative International Energy Agency is saying it.’

Nnimmo Bassey: ‘What was once radical is now necessary’

Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian activist, author and poet. President of Friends of the Earth International from 2008 to 2012, he was Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action for two decades. Winner of several awards for his environmental efforts, he is one of the leading figures of the Glasgow counter-summit, where we interviewed him.

You have participated in many COPs. Can you sum up the climate policies over these two decades? 

The history of the COPs helps us observe the evolution of global climate governance. One of the milestones was laid in 1997 in Kyoto, when the paradigm of “market environmentalism” was introduced: the thesis that the ecological crisis can be solved through market solutions. In 2009, in Copenhagen, the mechanism of voluntary emission reductions, which avoids binding commitments, took shape. This marked a critical step, because instead of a serious climate policy, a system was created that involved playing with numbers. The Paris Agreement consolidated the concept of voluntary emission reductions, and this is perhaps the real reason why governments and corporations celebrated it. The target set in Paris to remain below 2 degrees of temperature increase sounds like a joke. Even a 1.5 degree increase poses an enormous threat to many regions, especially in the global South. We now know that we are heading for a 2.7 degree increase. For a continent like Africa, these numbers are an enormous tragedy.

What do you think of the announcements made by a bloc of countries during COP26?

It’s propaganda more than actual commitments. Governments are telling us that they will stop investing in certain sectors, but that doesn’t mean they will. Years ago, the World Bank made a commitment not to finance fossil fuels, and instead continued to do so. A bloc of countries, including the United States, said they would stop deforestation, but they had already said that before. They are recycling their old commitments, with the aim of grabbing headlines and diverting public opinion.

How do you feel the climate narrative has changed over the years?

What was considered radical in the past is now seen as necessary. Twenty years ago, the call to leave fossil fuels in the ground was labeled idealistic, and now even the conservative International Energy Agency is saying it. It’s a pity that words are not followed by action.

What about energy policies? 

Energy policies remain neo-colonial, based on the idea that a few imperialist powers have the right to grab natural resources for themselves. It is the same dynamic as the pandemic, where national interest was put before that of the human collective. The same approach is guiding governments’ responses to the climate crisis and is turning parts of the world into written-off zones.

What is the situation in Nigeria today? 

Multinational companies continue to violate the human and environmental rights of communities. Now as we speak, there are ongoing explosions at an oil well which have been happening for a long time without anybody taking any action. What’s new is that oil companies, like ENI and Shell, are pulling out of wells on land, where communities have the ability to monitor what’s going on, to move offshore, where they pay less taxes and are subject to less scrutiny, with the military navy protecting their infrastructure.

What does a just transition mean to you?

The concept of a just transition should include the different perspectives, visions, and needs of communities that inhabit different places and belong to different cultures.

What message would you send to the young people who have been marching through the streets of Glasgow in recent days?

The future belongs to them. And they are the ones who would suffer the worst consequences of window-dressing commitments such as Net Zero by 2050. Net Zero is nothing more than a distraction, one of the many false solutions put forward by governments and multinationals. Young people must reject these proposals and demand immediate climate action.


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