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DRC auctions off vast quantities of its carbon sink

The country’s government has just moved to sell a substantial amount of critical tropical peatlands and rainforests for oil and gas drilling, mere months after promising to preserve them at COP26.

Licensing rights for 30 oil and gas blocks in the Democratic Republic of Congo have gone up for auction, leaving vast quantities of the world’s second-largest rainforest exposed to drilling that could release dangerous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Announced last week, this hugely controversial decision to sell off the carbon sinks comes just months after the country made a 10-year pledge to preserve the Congo basin at the COP26 climate conference in exchange for $500 million in international investment.

‘Our priority is not to save the planet,’ a leading Congolese minister contradictorily stated. ‘It is to tackle poverty in a context where fossil fuels including crude oil and gas are at the centre of global issues of peace and stability because of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict’ he added, referring to the government’s recent claims that the decision is key to raising funds amid the DRC’s rising cost of living crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has the world scrambling for fossil fuels.

President Félix Tshisekedi’s belief is that the immediate challenges facing his country outweigh the DRC’s responsibility to help lower global carbon emissions.

Yet as argued by Greenpeace, there is little to suggest that such revenues would be used for the public good ‘rather than the personal enrichment of political elites.’

The Earth’s ‘African Lung’ as it’s often called – with an area as big as Western Europe – absorbs 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year, offsetting more than the whole continent’s annual emissions.

Spreading across six countries, it’s considered a key site in the fight against ecological breakdown because, according to the UN, it offers ‘a carbon absorption service equivalent to 10 years of global emissions.’

However, in addition to the evident threat posed by damaging some 11 million hectares of one of the most significant natural shields we have protecting us from our own impact on the environment, primary concerns lie in the fact that at least three of the 16 proposed licenses due to be sold overlap with sensitive (and highly critical) tropical peatlands.

Two maps of the Congo basin colour-coded to display peat depth and carbon density.

Swamps which store even more carbon below ground in their soils than is held by the trees above thanks to regular flooding that slows the decay of dead plants.

If destroyed by the construction of roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure needed to extract the oil, it’s estimated that up to 6 billion tones CO2 could be released.

That’s equivalent 14 years’ worth of current greenhouse gas emissions.

‘In a zone where there are peatlands, any industrial exploitation means the explosion of a carbon bomb,’ says Irène Wabiwa Betoko, who leads Greenpeace’s Congo Basin project. ‘If oil exploitation takes place in these areas, we must expect a global climate catastrophe, and we will all just have to watch helplessly.’

 

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