Africa’s forests may be our last chance to slow climate change

Conservation action is needed to save the DRC’s forests and slow global climate change. Julien Harneis, Creative Commons.

Deforestation is now the second leading cause of global climate change. Debates on this topic often centre on the Amazon, given the high-profile destruction of its forest biodiversity. However, a troubling rise in deforestation in Central Africa – home to the world’s second largest tropical forest – has received surprisingly little attention.

Two-thirds of Africa’s remaining forests are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These forests span 1.7 million km², which is equivalent to one-third of Brazil’s Amazon. They also store 22 billion tonnes of carbon, ranking them among the world’s largest remaining carbon reserves.

Mounting deforestation pressures

Historically, forest cover in Central Africa has been relatively stable and the DRC’s passive approach to forest management has been largely sufficient.

However, several major deforestation threats have appeared recently. These include growing demands for infrastructure and agricultural production, and increasing foreign investment as a result of the nation’s new-found political stability.

Given these new deforestation pressures, we recently investigated whether the status quo of passive protection could ensure future forest conservation and carbon storage in the DRC. We analysed historic forest loss in the country and developed a model to simulate deforestation trajectories over the next 35 years.

Forest loss and carbon emissions

Our results suggest that deforestation in the DRC could reach 5,400 km² per year by 2050, a rate akin to forest loss currently observed in the Brazilian Amazon. Deforestation of this magnitude would cause a 60%, or 3.8 billion tonne, increase in carbon emissions – equivalent to adding 23 million new cars to our roads each year.

More worrisome though, is the acceleration of deforestation rates caused by emerging pressures. Our findings show that future increases in agricultural activities could double carbon emissions relative to projected historic trends.

Clearly, more active conservation is needed.

Taking action to conserve forests

So, what are the policy options and how effective are they likely to be?

One effort currently underway is the DRC’s plan to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). This policy aims to reduce illegal logging, expand protected areas, establish land use zoning, and increase sustainable forest practices.

If implemented successfully, our findings suggest REDD+ could halve forest loss by 2050. This illustrates a significant opportunity to secure DRC forests. What remains uncertain, however, is if this goal can be achieved without sacrificing sustainable development.

Other Central African countries face deforestation trajectories similar to the DRC. For example, a recent report highlighted the costs and benefits of increasing deforestation in Tanzania. Given these similarities, conservation activities proposed for the DRC may have broader use elsewhere in Africa. But successful adoption will rely on identifying and addressing the unique causes of deforestation and carbon emissions in each context.

More must be done

The fate of Central Africa’s tropical forests will have an immense impact on global climate change. But, as deforestation rates climb, research and conservation action remain stagnant. Critical knowledge and data on deforestation and forest carbon are missing, while conservation efforts lag behind emerging deforestation pressures.

These issues require immediate global attention, especially in the lead up to Paris 2015 climate negotiations. Failing to protect tropical forests risks a huge opportunity, possibly our last, to slow global climate change.