A ticking carbon bomb in the Congo Basin

If the Cuvette Centrale peatlands were to dry out and the carbon released, it would release three years of human induced greenhouse gas emissions.
Aerial view of village in Lac Paku in the peatland forest near Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Greenpeace is documenting ground-level research into satellite data on vast peatland areas recently discovered by scientists in the swamps of the Congo Basin rainforest, as well as affected communities and the natural environment. The most carbon-rich tropical region in the world is estimated to store the equivalent of three years’ worth of total global fossil fuel.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the impacts of 1.5 degree global warming show that the planet is in even worse shape than we thought.

The UN report examined the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, suggesting that we simply cannot afford to get to 2 degrees. One thing is clear, in order to stay below 2 degrees, we urgently need to radically cut fossil fuel consumption and invest in natural climate solutions, at the same time.

The benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5°C as compared to 2°C – the limit set in the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change to protect our planet for generations to come – are crucial throughout the world. Across the African continent, for instance, there will be less increase in vector-borne diseases, less people exposed to climate-related risks, more economic growth, and less damage to ecosystems.

Why the Congo Basin is crucial in keeping our planet cool

In the Congo Basin, one of the most carbon-dense ecosystems in the world is found in the Cuvette Centrale peatlands that stretches over the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo in the heart of Africa.

These tropical peatlands, the largest in the world, cover an area the size of England and store 30 billion tons of carbon only a few meters below ground. If the peatlands were to dry out and the carbon released, it would release three years of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. In other words,  a carbon bomb.

The Cuvette Centrale plays a particular important role as a natural climate solution.

Natural climate solutions such as forest protection and reforestation have the potential to provide over a third of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030 for a 2-degree target, implying high potential for 1.5 degrees too. Tropical forests, including the Congo Basin rainforest, represent two-thirds of this mitigation potential.

If left intact, the peatlands will continue to play the role of a globally important carbon sink that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it below ground.

Limiting fossil fuels crucial for ‘bomb’ to stay dormant

Currently, the peatlands are protected by the surrounding forests that form part of its ecosystem. The local and indigenous communities that live in and around the peatlands, depend on these areas for their livelihood and have harvested their resources sustainably for thousands of years.

These communities are the true experts in protecting these vulnerable wetlands. However, plans for industrial exploitation, as well as climate change itself, may threaten the way these lands are managed at the very moment we need them the most.

Higher temperatures and changes in precipitation caused by climate change may lead the peat to dry out and the carbon to be released, creating a vicious circle that reinforces climate change.

Limiting the use of fossil fuels around the globe is therefore critical for this remote ecosystem deep in the Congo Basin rainforest.  

Quick money can’t come first

But there are possibly more imminent threats to these vulnerable wetlands that must be addressed. Despite pledges to protect the peatlands, the governments of the two Congos have allocated large parts of the peatland areas for industrial logging, oil exploration and palm oil plantations.

Such a 20th-century approach to resources of the Congo Basin rainforest is not fit for the climate reality of the 21st century. Neither do they equitably benefit those who live in the forest and peatland areas of the Congo Basin.

Auctioning off large areas of some of the most carbon-rich and biodiverse areas of the world for industrial exploitation is neither morally nor economically justifiable. Unless such plans are scrapped as part of the protection effort for the peatlands, the world may risk losing out one of the world’s most available climate mitigation measures and destroy the livelihood of local communities in the process.

Leading peatland scientists Greta Dargie and Simon Lewis have warned that expansion of industrial logging, agriculture,  and oil exploration in the peatlands could bring infrastructure that risks altering drainage patterns, remove canopy and thus exposing the peats surface to higher temperatures and contribute to drying, or be drained intentionally to establish plantations as has happened in Indonesia with catastrophic results.

What needs to be done

Few people would argue against the importance of protecting the peatlands, just like few people would argue against the importance of limiting global warming. The two Congos pledged to protect the peatlands during a peatland summit earlier this year, though there are few signs that action follows.

As long as logging, plantation or oil concessions overlap with peatlands, there is no guarantee that these areas will be protected.

Embed from Getty Images

At a minimum, concessions should be suspended until researchers have established solid knowledge about the resilience of the ecosystem and hydrology that keeps the peat waterlogged. Ideally, plans for infrastructure and industrial exploitation should be abandoned altogether and the true value of these lands in their intact state should be acknowledged.

Land rights for local and indigenous communities must be assured. Their expertise and role as protectors on behalf of humanity is not merely an element in the solution, but rather the key to securing sustainable management of Cuvette Centrale peatlands, as well as tropical forests in the Congo Basin and elsewhere.

The UN special report on 1.5-degree warming tells us that we need to get serious about natural climate solutions. Deforestation must be halted and reversed and the integrity of carbon sinks like the Cuvette Centrale must be ensured. It also makes it clear that the consequences of not radically reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and limiting global warming to 1.5 degree above pre-industrial levels, could be more catastrophic than previously imagined.

Esben Marcussen

Esben Marcussen is the project coordinator of the Greenpeace timber and peat project in the Congo Basin. He is based in Oslo where he also follows the Norwegian Climate and Forest Initiative as part of Greenpeace global forest campaign. Before joining Greenpeace, Esben has worked for World Food Programme in Tunisia and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a degree in international history from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies where wrote a thesis on why Norway chose to invest in REDD+
    2 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Nicholas Robinson
    15 March 2019 at 1:19 am
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    Hi there. My name is Nick; I’m 61 years old and I’m a Canadian citizen, although I started off being an American (and still am) but was born in Calcutta, India (ten years), and have lived all over the world, including Zaire (now DR Congo, four years), Senegal (one year) Japan (five years) and the Bay Area (12 years) and now Montreal (going on 30 years, give or take.)

    I’m very surprised there are no comments here.

    I got here by Googling “corruption environmental degradation” . . . recently—well, over the past year or so—I’ve just been contemplating what has happened to this planet with more and more alarm.

    Part of me says “Why the fuck do you care? You’re going to dead long before the shit REALLY hits the fan.” And the cynic in me—that would be the 90% part—would totally agree. But then another part of me can’t stop thinking about all those innocent ORGANISMS that we will be taking with us . . . that we ARE taking with us.

    And I have to admit, as time goes by and I patiently absorb all the information that has been streaming in from all quarters—I pride myself in being *somewhat* knowledgeable about a multitude of disciplines; scientific, medical, cosmological, environmental, and most important (I feel), the natural world, or the world of living things—as I think and assimilate and sift and correlate and contemplate, I find myself being left with a vast and almost holistic picture of all the issues facing Earth, almost as if I’m some kind of a god, holding up the little blue globe in front of my face and telepathically “grokking” its wholeness without effort . . . it’s hard to explain without sounding like a crank, but I feel that I *understand* the horrific nature of what is going on on this planet.

    From examining all the mass extinctions of the past and realising first of all that it’s all entirely random—there are no gods or entities or aliens or any other “superior powers” making things happen or directing anything at all. Things happen entirely randomly with no particular order or organisation and that is the way things have been since the beginning of time.

    And what I see very, very clearly here is that there *is* going to be no “1.5” or “2.0” or 3 or whatever figure all the nice folks come up with, because there *is* going to be no sudden reversal of carbon emissions, no sudden cessation of longline fishing, no conversion of most of the world to veganism or sustainable eating or less reliance on palm oil, there will be no end to the Chinese’s fierce consumption of rare animals or rich folks’ love of rare woods; there is not going to be a reduction of arms trafficking, no remaking of cellular phones without the need of warzone minerals; no sudden and miraculous recovery of wild lemur populations or an amazing medical breakthrough of breeding the Northern White Rhino from DNA; shark sanctuaries will diminish in size and determination while illegal ravaging of sea life, fish stocks or whatever other high-sounding euphemism you wish to use for the ocean’s dwindling populations continues, even increases; there will BE no energy revolution or self-driving cars or rise of intelligent AI that will diagnose medical disorders; no cure for cancer, malaria or AIDS, no ending of American gun violence . . .

    Does anyone hear me? Isn’t ANYONE thinking what I’m thinking?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m no clapboard EndTimes truther-white-supremacist-survivalist prepper wackjob; I’m JUST AN ORDINARY DUDE READING ALL THE NEWS AND PROCESSING ALL THE DATA . . . I don’t NEED to be an extremist to know that we’re FUCKED, and the fixes are staring us in the face most times; it’s just that NO ONE IS GOING TO IMPLEMENT THEM.

    The people holding the reins (politicians); hell, even the people processing the data (scientists) and most importantly, the ordinary people walking, running, driving, flying, sailing, eating, getting drunk, doing drugs, moving, shaking, fucking, sleeping, LIVING, DYING . . . THEY are not going to solve it.

    Because if I have learned anything over my sixty-one years it is that where the human race is involved, the news is uniformly grim.

    I thought of starting a blog, but who needs another blog? I was blogging before there was even a word for it (about food) and I know no one is going to read it, and besides, who would listen to someone like me, with no affiliations, no credentials other than “musician, voracious reader, amateur naturalist/medical doctor/entomologist” . . . I have solutions, but no one cares.

    There was this guy, the director of a zoo in Slovakia (?) who somehow had something to do with the demise of the last Northern White rhino. When it happened, I went searching the Web for a way to help, maybe a place to donate. I arrived on his page, but the only way to donate on his page was to submit your bank account’s “swift code.”

    I emailed the guy and pointed out that no one was going to donate anything if you asked for any banking information but he seemed helpless . . . “Yes, I know, it’s very sad that we can’t offer a better way,” he said, but I immediately said “Yes, you can! You can offer a PayPal button . . . if you don’t know how, let me help you. You don’t have to give me anything.”

    But he didn’t do anything . . . the page didn’t change. I emailed him six months later and asked why he hadn’t changed anything. I received no reply.

    These are little things, but take these little things and multiply them by ten million and your see the inaction, the apathy, the *corruption* that forms the base layer—in all senses of the word—of most of humanity . . . it’s why the krill will continue to decline and the penguins will starve and the ice will melt while politicians wrangle and ordinary people squabble and procreate and the world will die.

    I even have a running title for a mass email that I send to my family and friends with links to various newsworthy events that illustrate the emperor Nero playing the fiddle while he watches Rome burn, entitled “While The World Burns Episode MCXXVIII: Michael Jackson Abuses A Child From Beyond The Grave” or some other whimsical headline basically trying to convey my endless frustration at the stupidities that occupy people’s lives while the world around them quite literally deteriorates; I liken it to your fingernails. You don’t see them growing until one day you wake up and realise you’re the Wolf Man . . . so it is with the state of the world, except when Humanity truly wakes up it will be to a cold reality which no more cares what happens to them than it cares about what they THINK about what has happened to them.

    I’m sorry to unload on your great post but this seems like a website, finally, that actually seems to CARE about what is happening to our world.

    No prayers.

    Just thoughts.

  • Avatar
    nicholas Robinson
    15 March 2019 at 1:39 am
    Leave a Reply

    Oh yeah, I remember why I originally alighted on this article: it’s because I actually passed four years of my life in Kinshasa back in the Golden Age of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku N’Bendu Waza Banga, and I know the Zaïrois (or the Congolais, as they would be known nowadays.)

    There will be no moratoria on developing the peat lands; there will be no discussions at all, except perhaps in the dignified circle of this august publication; a Congolese “Gros legume” (Big Vegetable) will simply accept the largest bribe from the nearest self-interest and then oversee the immediate development/chopping down of trees/clearing of the land/dispossessing of the inhabitants, or perhaps it will be more brutal—armed “Acronym gangs” (FPA, LMB, YTGH, MMOH, FLZ, acronym du jour; simply take your pick) will move in and slaughter the villagers BEFORE the Big Vegetable lets the cynical Fossil-Fuel barons move in and frack the fuck out of the peat unit there is nothing left to frack or fuck.

    THAT is what is going to happen to the peat lands of the Ituri forest.’

    And you don’t need a Swift Code to put THAT in your bank account.

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