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+
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