Congo Basin’s critical mass in equation to avert a meltdown

Wednesday December 15 2021
Tropical forests

A logger in DR Congo. Tropical forests are considered the second “green lung” of the planet whose safeguard is vital in fighting global warming. PHOTO | AFP


The peatlands and forests of Central Africa’s Congo region form a crucial part of globally significant nodes of nature for earth's climate stability, according to new findings from Conservation International, which maps the places humanity must protect to strengthen the global response to a climate catastrophe.

The mapped ecosystems contain what researchers call “irrecoverable carbon,” dense stores of carbon that if released due to human activity, could not be recovered in time for the world to prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

The new mapping of irrecoverable carbon zones in earth’s ecosystems, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, this month, finds that half of the planet’s irrecoverable carbon is concentrated on just 3.3 percent of land — including mangroves, old-growth forests and peatlands, like those found in the Congo Basin, highlighting opportunities for targeted efforts to protect these resources.

Congo Basin alone houses six percent of all the irrecoverable carbon on earth.

According to the study, globally, these vast reserves of carbon are equivalent to 15 times the global fossil fuel emissions released last year.

The waterlogged forests and tropical peatlands of the Congo Basin, it says, contain 8.1 billion metric tonnes of irrecoverable carbon — equal to more than 20 times Africa’s annual emissions — and have some of the highest concentrations of irrecoverable carbon worldwide.


It is the 30 percent of the world’s tropical peatland carbon contained in the Congo Basin, now known to be among Earth’s most irreplaceable ecosystems for global climate security, that makes it one of the most critical ecosystems on earth.

The world is at a pivotal moment for climate action, and nations are working to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by capping related global greenhouse gas emission pathways.

“We have less than 10 years to cut emissions in half and prevent our climate and biodiversity from reaching an irreversible tipping point,” said Allie Goldstein, a co-author on the study and Conservation International’s director of climate protection.

“The good news is that we haven’t yet reached that threshold. This is a rare scenario in which we have the time and information needed to prevent environmental disaster before it happens. Our research shows that investing in irrecoverable carbon reserves is a win-win-win approach that can improve the health of our climate, the health of Earth’s species and, ultimately, the health of humanity.”

Recognition is paramount

The researchers say that recognition of which ecosystems contain the greatest irrecoverable carbon stores will help governments focus global efforts to protect 30 percent of land by 2030.

“The map identified irrecoverable carbon reserves that are manageable, vulnerable to disturbance and could not be recovered by 2050 if lost today,” they said in their study.

“Targeted conservation would yield big gains – protecting just 5.4 percent of lands high in irrecoverable carbon, in addition to the amount currently within protected areas, would keep 75 percent of Earth’s irrecoverable carbon from being released into the atmosphere,” the researchers said.

“Knowing that irrecoverable carbon is concentrated in this region’s peatlands and trees can help guide the protection of these ecosystems that we now know are essential for Earth’s climate,” said Monica Noon, a Conservation International scientist and study’s lead author.

“The Congo Basin alone houses 6 percent of all the irrecoverable carbon on Earth — much of which is stored below ground, in the soils.

‘‘Science is just beginning to understand the extent and importance of this massive carbon reserve. We are at a pivotal moment for climate action – the science and solutions are here, and we know that areas like these are essential for global climate stability.”

The authors call for the creation of “irrecoverable carbon reserves,” new, area-based conservation measures designed to ensure irrecoverable carbon remains in these critical ecosystems.