Despite the COP28 climate summit agreeing on groundbreaking language on forests, countries are still no nearer to closing the “finance gap” necessary to stop the destruction of rainforests, according to Congo Basin nations.
For the first time, the global stocktake text at the summit in Dubai stressed the need to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030 and noted the “results-based finance” needed to achieve it. However, it remains unclear when significant money will start pouring in.
The COP28 text sends a positive signal on the vital role of nature in tackling climate change, said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chief climate negotiator for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But it could have been stronger in stating the huge amount of funding that is needed.
“It means that resources will come from the finance landscape once you implement action on the forest landscape,” Mpanu told Mongabay. “However, it doesn’t provide assurances that the finance to be provided will be aligned with the substantial scale of the needs required to implement action.”
The Congo is the world’s second-largest rainforest after the Amazon and a bigger carbon sink, absorbing more than a billion tons of atmospheric carbon per year. But the countries in the region are among the poorest countries in the world and have seen rising forest destruction for agriculture, charcoal and logging.
While the goal of halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030 was set by more than 100 countries in the Glasgow forests declaration during COP26, this is the first time it’s been stated in the COP text itself. The COP28 text, also for the first time, notes the need for more investment in results-based finance under the reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) framework set up by the Paris Agreement, giving a boost to that mechanism.
The summit in Dubai was an important venue to promote the message that “the invaluable ecosystem service that we provide to the planet cannot remain free forever,” said Arlette Soudan-Nonault, the Republic of Congo’s minister of tourism and the environment and the technical adviser to Congo Basin delegates.
But rainforest nations remain unsatisfied, as the gap between what they need for their energy transition and what they actually receive “remains as unbearable as ever,” she added.
“How can the G20 say on one hand there is a climate emergency, and if we don’t change our consumption and reduce resource exploitation we are going to warm 3-4° Celsius, but at the same time we can’t raise funding for the climate?” Soudan-Nonault asked. “We can raise funding to go to war.”
Africa, the most climate-vulnerable continent, accounts for only 4% of global emissions. Meanwhile, the Congo Basin removes at least $55 billion worth of carbon from the air per year, a sum comparable to what the countries there make exploiting minerals or oil, according to a recent report by forest experts for the European Climate Foundation. When the carbon emissions of forest loss are factored in, the sum drops to $31 billion. These figures are based on a social cost of carbon of $50 per metric ton calculated by a U.S. government working group in 2020 and may be a significant underestimate. This doesn’t include biodiversity protection, among other ecosystem services. But, to date, Congo nations are not receiving significant funding for their climate contribution.
“The amount of money available to the government is tiny compared to the theoretical value of forest and the very large amounts of money they believe they could make from oil and gas,” said Ruth Davis, a former adviser to the COP26 presidency on food and nature and one of the report’s authors.
During COP26 in Glasgow, countries pledged $12 billion toward a declaration goal of ending deforestation. As part of that, a dozen donors including the United States, the U.K. and the Bezos Earth Fund promised $1.5 billion over the next four years to protect and sustainably manage the forests of the Congo Basin. A pledge of $500 million was earmarked specifically for the DRC over five years. At COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, the U.K. announced the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership to try to galvanize more funding toward that goal. But two years after the initial pledges, Mpanu and Soudan-Nonault said neither of their countries had received any of this funding.
“I don’t know if the check is with the mailman, but it seems like the money hasn’t really made it through,” Mpanu said.
Although the country said it had received forest financing in the past, “We’ve yet to see the big money flow in the country and have this transformational role so that we can stop forest cover loss, which is a reality in the DRC,” he added.
Forests are recognized havens of biodiversity and also draw down about a third of human emissions from the atmosphere each year. But a 2020 report found a $700 billion “finance gap” in annual spending needed to achieve the goal of stopping the current biodiversity and nature loss — sometimes called the “sixth great extinction” — by 2030.
The Congo holds far more carbon than any other tropical forest, thanks to the peatlands beneath it. Just that peat holds 29 billion metric tons of carbon, or about 20 years of U.S. fossil fuel emissions.
But this rainforest is at risk of becoming a “carbon bomb” if trees continue to be razed. Two-thirds of people in the DRC live in poverty, and many of those near the forest resort to slash-and-burn agriculture to feed themselves. Other major threats include gold mining, logging for charcoal — even in the capital Kinshasa most people rely on charcoal for cooking — and artisanal logging of valuable hardwoods. That makes sustainable development the top priority for protecting the forest.
The rate of forest loss in the Congo Basin increased 5% in 2021. This year, the DRC alone lost 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch. (A research effort was launched at COP28 to obtain more data on the Congo rainforest.)
“The forest needs to be preserved, but in return, the local communities need to be provided with something, a means of survival,” said Marius Trésor Boleko, former environmental minister of Mai-Ndombe province in the DRC, who grew up in a village near the rainforest. “They have to be shown another way of living besides exploiting the forest.”
Without sustainable investment, it is not the peat but rather the oil underneath the forests that offers the promise of money and development. Currently, planned or existing oil and gas exploration fields threaten more than 64 million hectares (158 million acres) of Congo Basin forests, an area nearly twice the size of Germany.
In 2022, the DRC government started auctioning off 30 oil and gas fields covering 11 million hectares (27 million acres), including in peatland forest and protected areas like the famous mountain gorilla stronghold of Virunga National Park. When U.S. climate envoy John Kerry confronted DRC President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo about the leases in 2022, Tshisekedi retorted that the U.S. is still developing oil on its own territory.
The DRC has repeatedly delayed the due dates for bids as some major oil companies have ruled out taking part, and oil has become a hot-button issue in the upcoming presidential election. But gas blocks have been sold in Lake Kivu, including one to a Canadian company that failed to meet the auction’s minimum requirements. Scientists say disturbance to the lake could cause carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide eruptions from the bottom.
“What we are still lacking is concrete steps towards payment,” Leonardo Massai, a legal expert for the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, which has long been promoting U.N.-regulated carbon credits as the best solution for countries like the DRC. “They have been working on producing very positive results, for example, and they are not seeing too much of that. And that is putting a lot of pressure on governments in rainforest nations.”
The biggest obstacles to getting money flowing to the DRC have been questions about governance, as allegations of corruption abound and rebels have launched a new offensive in the eastern half of the country. Kinshasa has taken steps, however, toward regulating its forests. Last year, it passed the first law to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples, bolstering their efforts to conserve the swaths of rainforest located on Indigenous lands.
The government has also been mapping emissions from deforestation so that it can sell carbon credits to reduce these emissions under the REDD+ framework. The failure of COP28 negotiators to move forward on Article 6.2 — which would have set up a framework for deals where one country would offset its emissions by funding forest preservation in another — was a blow for Congo countries’ hopes to get more money moving, Mpanu said. Failure as well on Article 6.4, which would have established a U.N.-regulated voluntary carbon market was a second blow, according to Mpanu. Carbon credit offsetting remains controversial among some forest advocates and nations like Bolivia. Prices of commercial credits plummeted after an investigation this year showed up to 90% of them were “worthless.” But many still see U.N.-regulated credits as a way to jump-start forest finance.
“DRC is trying. They’re actually starting to get their data better. They’re really working. They’re trying to go the right way,” said Kevin Conrad, a COP negotiator for Papua New Guinea and director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. “But if they have no certainty that if they do the right things, that there’s going to be financial help for them, you can understand that a minister doesn’t want to do it.”
In light of the difficulties in the DRC, the European Climate Foundation report recommended more funding mechanisms owned by Indigenous peoples, local communities or NGOs, with a focus on small grants and loans. For truly widespread change, however, large institutions would have to play a role. At COP28, Brazil proposed a $250 billion Tropical Forests Forever fund, which would pool donor money in a fund that would pay countries based on how many hectares of rainforest they can keep standing. A key problem with credits has been that deforestation avoided in one protected area can simply shift to an unprotected one, unless emissions are counted across a wide jurisdiction.
Davis said she hopes the DRC can continue to map emissions, and that eventually it will participate in programs like the LEAF Coalition, which helps verified buyers purchase credits for deforestation reductions proven across entire countries or regions.
“There is a massive carbon bomb ticking, so we’ve got a critical problem right now,” Davis said. “The Brazilian proposal is great, but there is a question about whether it can scale up in time to address the problem.’
Congo countries are working on their own sovereign carbon credit markets, Soudan-Nonault said, and they will hold a roundtable in Brazzaville in September to try to raise funding for 324 sustainable development projects worth $10 billion.
“We try to make ourselves heard, but people don’t want to hear us,” she said. “So, we continue to find alternative solutions.”
Crezee, B., Dargie, G. C., Ewango, C. E., Mitchard, E. T., Emba B., O., Kanyama T., J., … Lewis, S. L. (2022). Mapping peat thickness and carbon stocks of the central Congo basin using field data. Nature Geoscience, 15(8), 639-644. doi:10.1038/s41561-022-00966-7
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This article by Alec Luhn was first published by Mongabay.com on 15 December 2023. Lead Image: A blue monkey in Virunga National Park, DRC. Image by Joseph King via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).