Earth’s ‘green lung’ rainforests take centre stage at talks in Gabon
The sixth annual One Planet Summit begins on Wednesday, with the fate of forests at the top of the agenda. Politicians, scientists and NGOs will meet in Libreville, Gabon, to discuss the future of rainforests in the Congo basin, Southeast Asia and the Amazon basin – and whether countries in the Global North should finance the preservation of the Earth’s “green lungs”.
French President Emmanuel Macron will preside over the two-day conference from Libreville, in the heart of Africa’s “green lung”: more than 200 million hectares of forest spread over six countries, filled with biodiverse species found nowhere else in the world.
The One Planet Summit, launched by Macron, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and then World Bank president Jim Kim in 2017, will gather heads of state, NGOs and scientists in Gabon’s capital to discuss the best way to protect the vast tropical forest in the Congo basin as well as those in the Amazon basin and Southeast Asia.
This year’s gathering has been dubbed the One Forest Summit to reflect this focus.
One Planet Summit
#OneForestSummit, the new One Planet Summit to advance our collective ambition regarding the #preservation & #sustainable management of tropical #forests! See you in Libreville, Gabon, on 1-2 March 🌳 pic.twitter.com/xHeWxRmHrc— One Planet Summit (@oneplanetsummit) February 21, 2023
“The decision to hold this summit in the Congo basin is significant because Central Africa’s tropical forest is one of the main carbon sinks on the planet,” says Alain Karsenty, forest economist and researcher at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and a Central Africa specialist.
The tropical rainforest, which spans Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, currently stores stocks of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent to 10 years’ worth of global emissions. “Forests in Southeast Asia now emit more CO2 than they absorb due to deforestation,” Karsenty says. “In the Amazon, studies show that we are reaching a tipping point. The only place where forests are definitely still absorbing more CO2 than they emit is in Central Africa.”
In the Amazon, thousands of trees have been razed to make space for soy farms and pasture for livestock, and in Indonesia palm oil production has led to millions of hectares of deforestation. But Central Africa’s rainforests have been largely – if not entirely – spared. “Deforestation began in 2010, spurred by the pressure of a growing population. It was linked to slash-and-burn agriculture, which many farmers depend on, and the use of charcoal,” Karsenty says.
Levels of such “poverty deforestation” vary from country to country in the Congo basin. DRC was home to 40% of global deforestation in 2021, second only to Brazil. But Gabon, which has a significantly smaller population than its neighbour, is a low deforestation country.
Gabon: A model student
Since the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was agreed at COP21, countries in Central Africa have taken steps to protect their forests. “And Gabon has gradually emerged as the model student in the region,” Karsenty says.
For decades the country – dubbed “Africa’s Last Eden” due to more than 85% of its territory being covered by rainforest – profited from the underground petrol resources fueling its economy. But in 2010 it began a transition towards diversification through timber production and palm oil plantations. The objective was to balance the country’s economic needs and its response to the climate emergency.
The initiative was led by the Gabonese-British minister of water, forests, seas and the environment, Lee White CBE, who offered foreign furniture companies and plywood manufacturers financial breaks on the condition that they set up factories in Gabon while simultaneously banning the export of logs and unprocessed wood.
Strict laws against using the forest for industry were also implemented, meaning manufacturers could only cut down a maximum of two trees per hectare, every 25 years. To deter illegal felling, logs were marked with barcodes so that they could be tracked, “which created jobs, helped the economy to flourish and limited deforestation”, Karsenty says.
Why tropical forests must urgently be preserved?
Why tropical #forests must urgently be preserved ? Listen to Ghislain Vielledent, ecologist @Cirad specialising in tropical forests, ahead of the #OneForestSummit in Gabon 🌍🌳 pic.twitter.com/nqgpiYyB0i— One Planet Summit (@oneplanetsummit) February 23, 2023
As a final measure, Gabon inaugurated 13 national parks covering 11% of its land mass and installed a satellite-based surveillance system to monitor deforestation.
Twelve years later, these environmental protection measures appear to have worked. Gabon’s forest area is increasing and illegal wood felling has decreased slightly. The number of elephants in Gabon’s forests has gone up from 60,000 in 1990 to 95,000 in 2021.
There have also been economic gains. Gabon has become one of Africa’s – and the world’s – biggest producers of plywood. In total, the timber industry provides some 30,000 jobs and 7% of the country’s labour force.
>> Biodiversity hotspot Gabon offers safe haven to endangered species
“Thanks to these political decisions, Gabon today is a regional leader on environmental issues,” says Karsenty. ”Several other countries in the Congo basin have said they want to implement measures inspired by Gabon. For example, Republic of the Congo and DRC also want to ban log exports and create free-trade zones to attract investors.”
“It is certainly no coincidence that Emmanuel Macron has decided to hold the One Forest Summit there,” he adds.
However, Gabon’s neighbour DRC is also trying to build up its international image as a major player in the fight against climate deregulation.
“Since 2010, DRC has also introduced several measures aiming to save the forest, notably policies to settle nomadic populations,” Karsenty says. The country’s indigenous peoples live in nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, and are reliant on the forest for resources, yet efforts to settle them have had limited success in a country subject to political corruption, instability and armed conflict.
At COP26 in 2021, the DRC named itself a “solution country” and committed to protecting its rainforest in exchange for financial support of $500 million from the international community.
Months later, the country hosted a “pre-COP” meeting ahead of COP27 that it used as an opportunity to showcase its fight against deforestation. Scientists were shown the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve on the Congo River, which has since 2020 been home to a “flux tower” that measures the amount of CO2 absorbed and emitted by the forest – a first in the region.
“There’s a real regional rivalry to appear internationally as a leader in forest protection,” Karsenty says. “And the main reason behind this race for leadership is seeking out financing from countries in the Global North.”
Finance from the North
Both Gabon and DRC agree on a central point: Industrialised countries whose historical use of fossil fuels bears much of the responsibility for climate change have an obligation to aid developing countries, such as those in the Congo basin, in their transition to ecological practices.
“Through its climate diplomacy, Gabon wants to make countries in the Global North finance its efforts to fight deforestation,” Karsenty says.
It has had some success. In 2019, Norway agreed to transfer $150 million to Gabon over a 10-year period to support its environmental policies. Although Norway has acted as a “benefactor” for tropical forests for some years, this marked the first time it had offered financial aid to a country located outside the Amazon basin or Indonesia.
Lee White on One Forrest Summit
Join us remotely at the One Forest Summit : pic.twitter.com/sirXUN35Ad— Prof. Lee White CBE (@LeeWhiteCBE) March 1, 2023
A year and a half later, Gabon received the first payment – $17 million in exchange for tonnes of CO2 stored, thanks to measures to halt deforestation.
During COP26, DRC was also promised a landmark $500 million from the international community to protect its forests. “Internationally, the DRC has been asking for years that the country be automatically remunerated for resources the forest would have provided based on some sort of ‘annuity’ rationale,” Karsenty says. “The argument is that by preserving their forests, countries are deprived of income, notably from underground [resources], and that should be compensated.”
However, the funds have yet to materialise and the country seems to be trying a new approach.
In July 2022, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi announced his intention to auction off land for oil drilling, some of which is located in the heart of the rainforest, home to the world’s largest tropical peat bogs. With capacity to produce up to 1 million barrels of oil per day, the country could generate revenue of $32 million per year, DRC’s minister of hydrocarbons has said.
Peat bogs are highly effective natural carbon sinks and damaging them would release enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
DRC’s lead representative for climate issues, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, told the New York Times that the call for tender was not a threat designed to scare industrialised countries into offering more financial assistance.
The issue will be up for discussion at the One Forest Summit. In the long-term, Karsenty says, “We need to go beyond these arguments and beyond rivalries, to put in place a communal agenda from countries in the Congo basin, achieve regional cooperation and preserve this tropical forest.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.
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