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What Is a “Just Climate Transition” for Africa?


African countries can thrive amidst climate change. But the international community needs to support a Just Transition. Climate expert Eunice Sampson explains.

Taking action on climate change is essential. But it will also be disruptive. “Entire economies and societies […] must be transformed and redirected to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future” states the United Nations.

Those changes will affect different business sectors and geographical locations differently. For example, countries producing fossil fuels may lose investors and markets.

Finding ways to smooth this process is sometimes called a “Just Transition.” It’s a strategy for helping vulnerable people and countries adjust to changes, for example, through financial support and technology transfer. But while it’s increasingly mentioned in international climate policy, it’s still an evolving idea.

NBS spoke with Eunice Sampson, a Nigerian climate change consultant and NBS advisor, about what the ‘Just Transition’ means in Nigeria and the broader African continent. The core of Just Transition is attention to local circumstances and needs; to date, NBS articles have explored Just Transitions in Canada, Denmark, and Australia.

In this conversation, Ms. Sampson shares how she sees the Just Transition unfolding in West Africa. She describes priority issues, possible solutions, and how individuals and organizations around the globe might advance the effort.

About Eunice Sampson

Ms. Sampson has worked on climate change and sustainability in Nigeria for 20 years, and is currently the Director of the Learning and Development Directorate of The Sustainability Professionals Institute of Nigeria, the foremost institute for Sustainability practitioners in the country.  (Views expressed here are her own.) She is also completing a PhD in Sustainable Development and Diplomacy at Euclid University.

Here are her insights.

Africa has contributed little to climate change – but bears arguably the biggest cost.

A Just Transition should “carry every continent of the world along in the journey to beat climate change,” said Sampson.

Supporting Africa in the green transition is particularly important from a justice perspective, Sampson argues. That’s because the continent has had little role in causing climate change – producing only 3.8% of global emissions – yet its vulnerability is great. African economies rely heavily on agriculture and other sectors likely to be affected by climate.

Sampson described an African perspective: “‘Okay, so we contributed the least to the reason why the climate is changing. And yet we seem to be one of the most vulnerable to the fallouts of climate change. So how do we reconcile this?’” How does Africa get the support required to address this vulnerability, and mitigate the negative impact of climate change?

Climate impacts are already present in Africa

In 2022, Nigeria experienced its worst flood ever, with hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Climate change has also worsened desertification in some parts of the country. “The traditional livelihood in these areas, which is rearing cattle, has been overturned,” said Sampson. The result has been migration, conflict, and thousands of lives lost over the last decade.

Africa should be supported in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables

For centuries, the West used fossil fuels to industrialize. As Africa industrializes, fossil fuels are becoming off-limits.

“There can be no industrialization without energy utilization,” said Sampson. “How just is it for the African continent, which is only beginning to emerge in its industrialization journey, to be made to stop the use of fossil fuel? We are being told [by investors] ‘Oh, no, you can’t use coal. Oh, no, we are not going to be investing in the production of fossil fuel.’ Countries are saying, ‘By 2030, we are going to stop the importation of oil and stop investing in the oil and gas industry.’”

In Nigeria, for example, crude oil is the biggest contributor to GDP and the country’s biggest export. “If you stop investing in crude oil production in Nigeria, how do the people survive?” Sampson asked.

Renewable energy resources are abundant – but need time to develop. “We have sunshine almost nine to 10 months every year, which is fantastic, but these are long-term projects,” said Sampson. “They will not materialize overnight; they have a long gestational period. So these are some of the dilemmas we are talking about with the energy transition. Is the African continent being carried along in the just energy transition?”

What investment in the transition to renewables looks like

Transitioning from oil to renewable energy requires international investments, said Sampson. It needs “deliberate and intentional global investments that are targeted at supporting the African continent to grow faster and to have a robust renewable energy sector. Africa needs, not charity, but strategic investments that would convert its huge renewable resources (abundant sunshine, wind, etc.), into a vibrant renewable energy sector.” The vision is that within 10 years, African countries will use mostly renewable energy and can export it.

This transition would have benefits globally and regionally. Many Africans still experience electricity shortages. “It’s a big market,” said Sampson: “A continent of over one billion people who desperately need energy to power their industries and homes.” An strong renewables sector would provide both energy and jobs for millions of unemployed. Action on climate change can become an opportunity to enhance Africa’s industrialization: a springboard for growth and sustainable development.

Just Transition requires participation and listening

Currently, large organizations control the money and policy needed for Just Transition to happen. These actors include institutional investors, development banks, and other international organizations. “If they focus their investments, it will empower the continent to meet its huge energy needs, industrialize faster, and also be able to create jobs for the teeming graduates in this part of the world,” said Sampson.

But so far, these actors have yet to take sufficient needed action. “We do not see a lot of conversation going on at the global stage on how best to tackle regional peculiarities in addressing the challenge of climate change,” said Sampson. “And we have yet to see definite collective action that is far-reaching, concrete, and sustainable.

“For us, a Just Transition means an energy transition that does not leave anyone behind, that is inclusive, that is just and fair, that ensures that no particular region of the world suffers at the expense of combating climate change.”

Build ideas locally, with the people affected

Getting to this goal requires building ideas locally and regionally, with the people who will be affected. Too often, policy leaders speak about Africa, but without first-hand knowledge. “We need to involve this continent in more global conversations around energy transition,” said Sampson. “We need to allow the African stories to be told by Africans.”

One example is a series of conversations on Just Transition organized by the African Development Bank. A discussion paper and roundtables that have built insight and agreement.

Local input can lead to tailored solutions. Perhaps some geographical regions get more time to meet policy requirements like reduced emissions – or extra support in meeting requirements. One model is “Just Energy Transition Partnerships,” where countries get specific resources to transition.

Everyone – from individuals to organizations –  can advocate for this kind of greater sensitivity in policy. To date, international climate policy has been one-size-fits-all, said Sampson. Instead, it should pay attention to local variations. “We need to endeavor to know more about other people around the world and understand their circumstances and peculiarities right?” said Sampson. “We need to be more granular in saying, ‘OK, so what works? What works in Africa? How do we make the African continent decarbonize without necessarily stifling economic growth and development?’”

Ultimately, climate change could be an opportunity for people everywhere to come together. Sampson describes the stakes of this world-wide threat:

“We need to face the realities before us right now, which is that climate has no respect for anybody. It doesn’t care about your race, your colour, or your social status. We are all vulnerable, and we need to come together to fight this together. But all we are asking for is, let’s be more sensitive about how we go about it, and let’s be careful to ensure that no continent is left behind. And that no economy is stifled at the expense of fighting climate change.”

More Resources on Just Transition

African Development Bank Group. 2024. Just Transition Initiative to Address Climate Change in the African Context (webpage and discussion paper).

African Development Bank Group. 2024. Climate Change in Africa

Brown, L., & Karnoe, P. 2020. How Workers Can Thrive in the Green Transition. Network for Business Sustainability.

Dodd, T., Rai, A., & Caught, K. 2020. How to Make the Climate Transition Fair: Lessons from Australia. Network for Business Sustainability.

Sego, C. 2022. An Explainer on Just Transition in Climate Governance. ClimateWorks Foundation.

Johansson, V. 2023. Just transition as an evolving concept in international climate law. Journal of Environmental Law, 35(2), 229–249.

Why We Wrote This Article

NBS surveyed readers in January 2023 to ask about their priority business sustainability topics. The climate transition was a major theme, with survey respondents wanting to know how companies, government, and other actors can accelerate change. Making this change “just” or fair is also a goal.

The NBS Content Committee helped NBS staff shape these questions further – and the resulting insights led to this article. We’ll continue to explore the climate transition in articles dealing with aspects from policy to innovation. Contact us at info@nbs.net if you’d like to share your insights.

Thank you also to researcher Jessica Adevor who provided additional input on the topic of Just Transition. 

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  • Eunice Sampson

    Eunice Sampson has worked on climate change and sustainability in Nigeria for 20 years, and is currently the Director of the Learning and Development Directorate of The Sustainability Professionals Institute of Nigeria, the foremost institute for sustainability practitioners in the country. (Views expressed here are her own.) She is also completing a PhD in Sustainable Development and Diplomacy at Euclid University.

  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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