Congo Basin forests: Climate science needed to unlock its value

Alan Bernstein
By Alan Bernstein

Founder and Executive Chairman of the African Conservation Development Group Alan Bernstein has founded and scaled multiple sustainable land use developments across the globe, and has led professional teams pioneering new approaches to climate finance

Posted on Thursday, 11 November 2021 10:24
Logging, farming and armed conflict still menace Africa's jungles, which include the Congo Basin, the world's second largest after the Amazon, but analysts are increasingly hopeful its remaining wilds can be rescued. Picture taken July 15, 2010. To match feature AFRICA-FORESTS REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

The COP26 donor statement committing $1.5bn to support the protection of the Congo Basin forests marks a watershed moment for the region.

The tropical forests of Central Africa are a world away from chilly Glasgow, yet they lie at the heart of the world’s collective drive to tackle climate change. The COP26 donor statement committing $1.5bn to support the protection of the Congo Basin forests marks a watershed moment for the region. For the first time, the global significance of the ecosystem services these forests provide has been recognised and valued.

The Congo Basin forests sequester carbon equivalent to around 4% of global emissions, protect precious biodiversity, support the livelihoods of 80 million people who live in and around the forest and – through their role in regulating rainfall from the Ethiopian highlands to the Sahel – support 300 million rural Africans. There’s real and massive value at stake.

Monitoring the effectiveness with which funds to protect the Congo Basin’s forests are deployed is therefore critical. Scientific data is key to measuring impact and creating trust.

A recent article in Nature magazine authored by Central African Ministers of Environment and scientists called for a ten-year climate science programme to study the role of the Congo Basin forests in climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation.

Science and conservation

We share the authors’ conviction that science must inform conservation development practice in tropical forest ecosystems. This was the motivation for The African Conservation Development Group (ACDG) to launch forestLAB, along with founding partners the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the University of Stirling, which has a 40-year research history studying the Congo Basin forests through its research station at Lope in Gabon.

forestLAB has also signed a partnership agreement with CENAREST, the National Research Institute of Gabon, to ensure alignment with national research interests and support the next generation of scientific researchers in Central Africa.

Part of forestLAB’s work will include refining a new landscape-scale sustainable development methodology for tropical forest ecosystems. This model is applicable to our Grande Mayumba project in southern Gabon, which will protect critical biodiversity and provide regional socio-economic uplift while avoiding up to 200 million tonnes of carbon emissions over 25 years. Over a third of the land area is being set aside for biodiversity conservation.

Science, technology and data underpin our approach. Using advanced Tier 3 methods, we are conducting forest cover mapping using optical satellite data to show changes over time and using LiDAR to provide a high-definition map of the forest carbon stock. We ground truth the satellite data with forest data plots, which record all tree species over 5cm in diameter and also enable the measurement of deadwood and soil carbon.

We work in close collaboration with the Gabonese Republic, which has established a national monitoring matrix to ensure detailed ecological data collection, including above and below ground carbon pools. The Agence Gabonaise d’Etudes et d’Spatiale (AGEOS) has also set up the Space Climate Observatory to provide decision-makers with the tools to study the impacts of climate change at local and regional scales.

At COP26, a global Land & Carbon Lab was launched – an initiative of the World Resources Institute backed by the Bezos Earth Fund, Google and the Universities of Maryland and Wageningen.

It uses data, science and technology to monitor land use and forest cover change with a resolution of up to ten square metres. The Lab’s work will help ground truth the $2bn mobilised for the restoration of 100 million hectares under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100). It’s a powerful example of how science and data give investors confidence to unlock funding at scale and create the ability to track impact in real time.

Bottom line

As the world gathers in Glasgow and new collaborations are forged to ensure humanity can prosper within our planetary boundaries, strengthening the relationship between science and business is critical. By sharing our findings over the coming years, we can contribute meaningfully to the emergence of new models for sustainable development in Africa’s tropical forest regions.

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