Deforestation and climate – what about the Congo Basin?

deforestation in Africa’s Congo Basin

Headlines on deforestation, particularly those that link the problem with climate change, usually focus on changes in the Amazon forest system. Sometimes we read about the ravages on Indonesia’s forests from expansion of oil palm plantations. But we almost never hear about what is happening in the Congo Basin forests, the green jewel in Africa’s heart. Yet this is the world’s second largest tropical rainforest expanse, an important biodiversity hotspot – including over 10,000 species of plants, and a significant carbon sink, storing around 8% of the world’s forest-based carbon. So what is going on in the Congo Basin?

According to UNEP,  approximately 91,000 km2 of forests were lost in Central Africa between 1990 and 2000 – this represents an area three times the size of Belgium. Threats to the forests include illegal or unsustainable logging, expansion of agriculture and mining, and a range of governance problems. The World Resources Institute’s great blog on 9 maps that explain the world’s forests shows significant tree loss in the Eastern Afromonte eco-region, which includes part of the habitat of the endangered chimpanzees and gorillas.

This increased habitat loss does not help gorillas and chimps, already under increasing pressure from hunting for bushmeat, infectious diseases and wildlife trade. Like the rest of Africa, the Congo Basin is getting warmer as a result of climate change. The specifics of change for the Congo Basin are relatively unresearched, but unprecedented climates are in general projected to occur several decades earlier in the tropics than in the rest of Africa. According to the Congo Project, the number of hot days and hot nights is particularly expected to increase. While average annual rainfall amounts are not expected to change much, the intensity of rainfall will likely increase significantly, as will the frequency of dry spells and the evaporation potential. These changes will have a range of different impacts on forest ecosystems and the communities that rely on them. Higher temperatures could reduce forest growth and carbon storage, but this requires further study.

On top of the climate impacts, a recent study by KU Leuven researchers indicates that deforestation could add an extra 0.7°C to the average temperature increase of 1.4°C projected for Central Africa by 2050. This is mainly due to the reduced evaporation resulting from deforestation. So climate change affects the Congo Basin forests, and deforestation has a direct impact on the regional climate. While we may still need an enhanced understanding of the Basin’s specific climate vulnerabilities and impacts, the KU Leuven study emphasises the multiple motivations to act on deforestation in the Congo Basin before it is too late: global carbon sequestration, regional climate, and biodiversity conservation to support livelihoods. This will undoubtedly mean tackling complex governance issues and sources of conflict in the region. Regional policy makers, please take note!

Forest image : Creative Commons: Ben Britten, 2000

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