The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has criticised the west for pressuring it to halt oil and gas exploration in the Congo basin rainforest, while continuing to search for fossil fuels in their own countries.
The Congo basin, more than half of which is located in DRC, is the last rainforest on Earth that sucks in more carbon than it releases and is second only to the Amazon in size. The DRC announced in July that oil and gas permits in parts of the rainforest would be auctioned off. The blocks up for sale include areas in Virunga national park, as well as critically endangered gorilla habitats and the world’s largest tropical peatlands, which store the equivalent of three years of the world’s fossil fuel emissions.
The auction has prompted behind-the-scenes efforts to avert oil and gas exploration in DRC’s vital ecosystems, with conservationists proposing alternative livelihood projects or even considering bidding for the licences.
But DRC officials have defended the auction ahead of Cop27, where climate justice will be a key issue, arguing that the auction is important for the economic development of one of the poorest countries on Earth. They have also highlighted that countries such as the UK, Norway and the US are urging them not to drill while continuing to explore for new fossil fuels themselves.
Earlier this month, Eve Bazaiba, DRC’s environment minister, strongly rejected a suggestion by the US climate envoy, John Kerry, to drop some of the fossil fuel auctions at a pre-Cop27 meeting in Kinshasa.
“Nobody can put pressure on us,” Bazaiba told Reuters. “No convention in the world, not even the Paris Agreement, forbids a country from emitting CO2 for development reasons. This is not a working group in which a colonialist controls a colony … If we think it could destroy the environment, we will leave it.”
Last week, the DRC president, Félix Tshisekedi, told an FT Africa event that the world needed to realise the Congo basin forest was a global asset and must help his country protect it. “We have never said we are going to put the planet in danger … Nobody is helping us,” he said.
A group of donor countries that make up the Central African Forest Initiative – including the UK, Norway, and Germany – are working with the DRC government to identify conservation projects to benefit from a $500m (£431m) deal signed at Cop26 in Glasgow last year by Boris Johnson. No money has been released so far but DRC has made progress in meeting the agreement, which includes objectives to protect high-value forests and peatlands. In April, concerns were raised about the country’s “lawless” logging sector but it is understood that donor countries are generally pleased with progress since the Glasgow summit.
Lee White, the environment minister in Gabon – an oil producer and Congo basin country with a largely intact rainforest – said that fossil exploration in DRC would not necessarily mean that vital ecosystems would be destroyed.
“I think there’s a lot of naive, well-intentioned criticism,” said White. “Certainly the Norways and the UKs of this world cannot make a moral call for African nations not to exploit their oil. We are not seeing any of this committed climate funding. It’s not flowing into our countries at all. So, to then be preached to by countries that emitted most of this CO2 is galling.”
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London and a global expert on DRC’s peatlands, said drilling for oil in the Congo basin would be a disaster for biodiversity, the climate and human health.
“Opening these forests to oil drilling will also lead to illegal commercial hunting and the loss of wildlife. Once forests are degraded outright deforestation typically follows. Add the carbon emissions from deforestation to those from burning the oil, and burning rainforest oil is worse for the climate than burning coal,” he said.