Oil, Gas Exploration and Deforestation Threaten Africa's Great Carbon Sink

The planet’s largest remaining carbon sink is at risk.

Aerial view of a Bai (saline, mineral lick) in the rainforest of the Congo Basin.

guenterguni / Getty Images

In the center of the African continent, an immense and vital forest currently thrives. As the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, the Congo Basin covers six countries and around 500 million acres–an area one-fourth the size of the contiguous U.S. It is a haven for both human and natural diversity, hosting more than 150 different ethnic groups and one-fifth of all Earth’s species. It directly supports the livelihoods of the 60 million people who live in or near forest areas and feeds 40 million people who live in adjacent cities. And, as the planet’s largest remaining carbon sink, it is essential for efforts to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. 

It is also, increasingly, at risk, as two recent reports warn. One, a first-of-its-kind regional assessment from the Forest Declaration Assessment, found that deforestation in the Congo had increased by nearly 5% in 2021. Another, from Rainforest Foundation UK and EarthInsight, details the threats posed by planned oil and gas extraction in the region.

“The Congo Basin Forest is at a crossroads,” lead author of the first report and senior consultant at Climate Focus Marion Ferrat says in a press release shared with Treehugger. “Deforestation has been low compared to other tropical regions, but we are seeing an upward trend of fragmentation and forest loss since 2020. If this trend continues, we risk losing the largest remaining intact forest in the tropics along with its immense and irreplaceable value for biodiversity, climate, and people.” 

The End of ‘Passive Protection’? 

When compared to the world’s other two most prominent tropical forests—the Amazon in South America and the forests of Southeast Asia—the Congo has faced the least encroachment by human activity so far. While Southeast Asia’s forests are now a net carbon source and the Amazon is on the brink, the Congo still sucks up 600 million more metric tonnes of carbon dioxide than it releases every year, which means it counteracts about a third of U.S. transportation emissions.

Its importance both to the planet and its human and non-human residents is one reason Forest Declaration Assessment focused its first-ever regional assessment on the Congo, The Forest Declaration Assessment–coordinated by climate-policy advisory company Climate Focus–tracks the world’s progress towards global forest declarations, such as the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, in which more than 140 nations promised to stop and then reverse deforestation by 2030. 

The findings of this regional assessment are concerning. Up until now, Climate Focus consultant Sanggeet Mithra Manirajah tells Treehugger, the Congo has been "passively protected, through a combination of low population density in rural areas, political instability, lack of infrastructure and transport, and high risks associated with private investment."

However, there are signs that this is changing. From 2015 to 2020, deforestation was on the wane in the region, though it still lost 2.2 million hectares of forest and saw 1.5 million hectares degraded. However, during 2021, deforestation in the Congo Basin increased by 30,000 hectares, or 4.9% compared to 2018 to 2020 rates, jumping to 636,000 hectares lost.

“Continued monitoring will be needed to assess whether this trend will continue,” Manirajah says. 

Tree trunks in the congo on a car as a result of deforestation

Forest Declaration Platform

All six Congo countries—Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Republic of the Congo—have signed the Glasgow Declaration. Yet to truly pause and reverse deforestation by 2030, the rate of forest loss would have to decline by 10% per year between 2020 and 2030. Only Gabon and the Republic of the Congo have deforestation rates in keeping with that target.

The leading cause of forest loss and degradation in the Congo remains small-scale subsistence agriculture combined with the creation of new roads and settlements. Another driver of forest loss that increased in 2021 was artisanal forestry–or forestry activities on an individual as opposed to an industrial scale. 

However, where deforestation occurs also matters. 

“While subsistence agriculture by small-scale farmers in rural areas was the main driver of deforestation and degradation in the Congo Basin between 2015-20, subsistence agriculture mostly impacts secondary and fragmented forests,” Manirajah explains. “The presence of industrial activities is more prominent in core forests and opens previously inaccessible intact or remote forest areas to other forest-risk activities, such as the establishment of settlements, roads, and agriculture.” 

A recent study by FAO in the region found that 80% of deforestation takes place within three kilometers (approximately two miles) of a road or settlement, and 11% of deforestation between 2015 and 2020 occurred in forests that had first been broken up by human activity.

“These commercial activities in intact core forests have a greater impact on carbon stocks and biodiversity in the long-term than agricultural conversion of fragmented and secondary forests,”  Manirajah says. “The impact of these activities, therefore, needs to be closely monitored and mitigated.”

Fossil Fuels vs. The Congo

One of the industrial activities that could pose a serious threat to the Congo in the future is oil and gas extraction. While the report listed large-scale mining, logging, and agriculture as the activities that posed the greatest threats to core forests, it noted that there are troubling signs from the fossil fuel sector. In the past, most mineral extraction in Congo countries did not occur in the forest, but, in July 2022, the DRC auctioned off oil licenses in protected areas. Further, mining, oil, and gas permits overlap with intact forested areas in 48% of some Congo countries.

The danger posed by fossil fuel development was the focus of a second report titled “Congo in the Crosshairs: New Oil and Gas Expansion Threats to Climate, Forests, and Communities.” 

The report first looked at broader trends within Africa as a whole: Currently, around 9.5% of the continent’s land area is covered by an oil or gas production block, but that could quadruple in the coming years as 37.7% of the continent is under proposed oil and gas blocks. What’s even worse for the climate, more than 30% of oil and gas exploration blocks on the continent are found in tropical forests and 90% of those blocks are in the Congo. More than 35% of the Congo forest is covered by more than 150 oil and gas blocks that are either in production or designated for exploration. That’s an area of forest almost double the size of Germany.

Of particular concern from a climate perspective are some of those licenses that DRC auctioned off in July. In total, the country auctioned 30 oil and gas blocks overlapping with a forested area about the size of England. Three of those blocks in particular are located on the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, which currently store around 29 billion tonnes of carbon. If released, that carbon would equal three-year’s worth of worldwide fossil fuel pollution. Releasing the peat stored only in the three blocks would be equal to burning 14.2 billion barrels of oil.

Map of oil and gas blocks overlap with carbon-rich peatlands

Rainforest Foundation UK and Earth InSight

“The International Energy Agency is clear that to limit global warming to within the threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and get to net-zero emissions by 2050, no further fossil fuel expansion must take place – and that especially includes the global north where there are plans to create new oil fields in the North Sea, for example,” Rainforest Foundation UK Executive Director and co-lead report author Joe Eisen tells Treehugger in an email.

Exploiting the Congo for oil and gas clearly goes against the agency’s recommendation. And the climate impacts of the fuels would be exacerbated by further fragmenting the world’s last remaining tropical carbon sink. 

“[E]ven if the direct impacts on forests could be minimized, the transport and energy infrastructure required, even for testing, will likely open up previously intact areas to a ‘cascade of deforestation’ as loggers and settlers move in,” Eisen says, echoing the concerns of the Forest Declaration Assessment report. 

Finally, while some African countries including the DRC have argued that exploiting their oil and gas reserves could provide needed economic development, the industry’s track record on the continent has not been kind to local communities. In southern Nigeria, for example, more than 50 years of oil extraction have left the region one of the most polluted on earth. The country has suffered up to 10 billion barrels worth of oil spills–or one Exxon-Valdez equivalent spill each year for the last 50 years–devastating the health of people who live close to the pollution.  In the Congo, 36.5 million people and 16,311 communities live in areas overlapping with oil and gas blocks.

“The auction of 30 oil and gas blocks has also flouted a number of laws that are supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest communities. Both they and humanity, in general, would [be] better served by unleashing the huge potential of renewable energies in the country,” Eisen says. 

Preserving the Last Tropical Carbon Sink

Both reports offered recommendations for how to best protect the Congo from further deforestation going forward. One solution they each emphasized is protecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

“Ultimately, the evidence is clear that securing the rights of communities that live in and depend on forests is the most effective, and just, way to protect them,” Eisen says. 

The Rainforest Foundation report offered further recommendations for bringing prosperity to the region without sacrificing either the global climate or community health. These included:

  1. Encouraging investments in renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
  2. Funneling money towards the just and environmentally responsible sourcing of minerals like cobalt and lithium needed for the green energy transition.
  3. Generating financial and technological support from G20 countries, including by taxing carbon profits in these nations.
  4. Raising more money for forest protection, with a special focus on channeling money towards Indigenous peoples and local communities. 

The Forest Declaration Assessment report also emphasized the role of the international community in financing forest preservation while allowing people on the ground to lead these efforts.

"Donor countries, the private sector, and philanthropy must work together for the longevity of these forests and ensure their survival for future generations,” François Makoloh, Executive Director of ACB-ONG—a Central African environmental nonprofit that helped compile the report—said in the press release. “Governments and grassroots organizations in the region alone cannot afford the investments and resources needed to strengthen forest governance, improve law enforcement, and secure and protect the land rights of local communities. It is also important to ensure the strong involvement of women and Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of various programs for the protection of forest ecosystems in the Congo Basin region. The world must realize that the threats to the Congo Basin threaten us all.”