AFRICA – This blog is to encourage an ‘and/and’ approach to scaling up all climate mitigation solutions, and to dispel the myth of the ‘either/or’ at this critical juncture in time. The latest IPCC Report starkly highlights that we are falling behind on the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. There is a perception by some that protecting old forests is irrelevant to climate change, and therefore projects to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) are no longer valuable investments. With deforestation rates increasing 12% in 2020 to 12 million hectares (ha) globally, and atmospheric carbon surpassing 420 ppm in 2021, there is neither time nor logic to exclude REDD+ projects from carbon markets.
Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project
Zambia is one of Africa’s most forested countries (60%), but also has one of the highest amounts of deforestation by landcover per year of any African country at about 300,000 ha per annum. Zambia is also listed by the World Bank as a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC). In the last 12 months, BioCarbon Partners (BCP) has made direct transformational payments of $4.76 million to 12 communities partnering in the Luangwa Community Forests Project – a benefit flow that would still have exceeded tourism revenues to communities had there been no pandemic. With the tourism collapse due to COVID-19, REDD+ payments became the single largest source of community revenues in history.
Adjacent to the Luangwa Community Forests Project is BCP’s pilot 40,000 ha Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project (LRZP), only 90 kilometres from Lusaka. Formed in 2012, the LZRP went on to become Africa’s first CCBA triple-gold validated REDD+ project, and has since passed eight Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) verifications. After our first few VCS audits, it became clear that while the project was focused on avoiding the loss of the forest, the trees were growing.
Our forest inventory data revealed an increase in average stem diameter per year and an increase of trees per hectare, which on average removes 1.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per annum per tree. Using a mean density of trees in LZRP to be 498 per ha, the CO2e accumulation over the project accounting area is 18,561 tons of CO2e annually. When we expand this across the 1 million ha of both projects that BCP implements, this REDD+ project is removing an additional 285,358 tons of CO2e per annum, which is 19% of the annual net emissions reductions of both projects.
Growing forests accumulate and store carbon. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it as cellulose, lignin and other compounds. The rate of carbon accumulation is equal to the carbon added from growth minus the carbon from removals and decomposition. In well-managed forests, growth should exceed removals and decomposition, so the amount of carbon stored increases overall.
Research has shown that between 2001 and 2019, the world’s forests sequestered about twice as much CO2 as they emitted, absorbing a net 7.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year (1.5 times more carbon than the US emits annually).
The miombo woodlands
The miombo woodlands are the third largest forest type on earth and the miombo biome is Africa’s most valuable habitat for ecosystem services, providing more direct benefits to Africa’s rural communities than any other habitat type. Fire and herbivory are fundamental disturbance factors in shaping the evolution of the miombo biome. Miombo woodlands have evolved with fire and thus recover quickly after a fire occurrence, unlike most other forest types. The extent of the recovery depends on the fire intensity, frequency and season. Fires in miombo woodlands are a fact of life; but they need to be managed.
When you look at a fire map of Africa, vast areas of miombo-dominated countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and Angola burn annually. While the image of fires in California, Australia and Nepal in the media dominate, the truth is that 75% of emissions from savanna fires actually originate in Africa. New research shows that reducing the number of fires in miombo woodlands from once a year to once every three years could remove an additional 1-2 tons of CO2e/ha/year.
In addition to the climate, people and wildlife numbers are also alarming, especially in Africa. Since 1974, elephant numbers have declined 71% from roughly 1.4 million to 400,000, and lion numbers have declined 90% from an estimated 200,000 in 1975 to only 20,000 today. By 2100, Africa’s human population is projected to grow to 4.5 billion people. That is a 291% population increase in the next 79 years! In 2018, Africa’s economy was under 3% of total global economic output, but the continent has 17% of the world’s population.
Africa’s remaining forests and wildlife are under increasing pressure today, further emphasising why there is no time to sideline forest carbon markets. Carbon markets offer the best tool in a generation to restore and protect forests. An increase in offset pricing is needed to offset the opportunity costs likely to increase dramatically alongside human population growth.
We need sustained access to carbon markets for REDD+ projects, as force-multipliers working with technological solutions and tree-planting. We also need policies that incentivise landowners to promote wildlife, and methodologies that enable wildlife increases and fire reductions as part of carbon offset programmes. It is important that access to capital to develop REDD+ projects continues to grow, and it is vital that pricing of offsets increases to reflect the true value of the services these REDD+ projects provide.
It is well-known that habitat restoration at scale costs money; carbon offsetting offers a pragmatic way to close the conservation funding gap and lift millions of people out of poverty. This is the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and we can only hope that the important role that African dryland forest REDD+ projects serve in emissions reduction and biodiversity protection services is properly valued. We need both carbon offsetting and deep decarbonization at source, not either/or.
To make substantive progress with climate change, we need to go farther faster, which means using all our tools together, not picking only one.