If conflict-riven state can forge a carbon-cutting strategy then so can others says Kinshasa’s lead climate diplomat
By Ed King
“If we are able to deliver no-one should have an excuse not to.”
The words of Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, climate negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo and an architect of the country’s recently submitted UN climate plan.
On 18 August the DRC, rated 186 out of 187 in the UN’s Human Development Index, became the 55th country to submit its contribution to a planned global climate deal.
Its ambition impressed and stunned many observers.
The nation of 75 million, which is responsible for 1.57% of global emissions, said it would target 17% greenhouse gas cuts on a business-as-usual baseline by 2030.
By 2025, it said 3 million hectares of trees would be planted; this in a country where nearly 68% of land is already covered by some of the world’s most diverse and ecologically important forests.
And it would also seek to protect 152 million hectares still covered by vegetation, which, according to the national plan (and depending on how you account for land use change emissions), places it in the unusual position of being a country that absorbs more CO2 than it produces.
This potentially makes the DRC’s climate pledge one of the most important to date.
“The intact forest in the Congo Basin is a globally significant carbon sink,” says Simon Lewis, a scientist from University College London who runs an African tropical forest monitoring scheme.
“We calculated that African tropical closed canopy forests account for about 0.3Gt (300 million tonnes) of carbon uptake each year… of which vast majority is in the DRC, because that is where most of Africa’s tropical forests are.”
Mpanu Mpanu worked with a team of eight to deliver the DRC’s contribution to a global climate pact well ahead of a soft deadline of 1 October set by the UN.
They identified forests, agriculture and energy as their main action areas, in a country scarred by civil wars that started in 1996, when dictator Mobutu Seso Seke stepped down from power.
Access to reliable data was a major obstacle facing the team. The country covers over 2.3 million square kilometres and central government’s reach is limited.
Meanwhile areas to the East of the country bordering Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi remain unstable.
“We have a lack of reliable statistics – that is a fact,” Mpanu Mpanu admits. “What we did was to try and base the assessment on the first year we felt we had reliable statistics, which was 2000.
“It was very hard to make concrete assessments, so we make what we view as realistic assumptions but also anticipate that knowledge will be revisited along the way.”
He stresses that the 17% target does not mean the country’s emissions will decline – quite the opposite given the dire development needs outlined in its plan.
Just 15% of citizens have access to electricity, 14% to adequate sanitation facilities and 47% to drinking water. Meanwhile, unemployment remains at a stubborn 18%.
“The priority for DRC is development – it’s not to save the planet,” says Mpanu Mpanu.
“I have an anecdote I tell people – I dream I’m at a family barbecue in 2022 and special forces come to arrest me for committing the country to too much in 2015.
“We have to be careful what we put on the table. But as long as we can create an alignment between a lower emission pathway, poverty reduction and development it can work.”
But it does mean that development could come with a green tinge, with investments in cleaner cookstoves, efficient charcoal use and outreach to stop slash-and-burn deforestation for agriculture, a major driver of the DRC’s huge land use change (LULUCF) emissions.
Funding for better surveillance could also help address logging that blights the country’s vast rainforests. According to a July study by Chatham House, “nearly all” timber produced in DRC is harvested illegally.
Around 0.3% of forest cover was lost a year between 2000 and 2012. There are fears that figure could rise as palm oil prospectors make their way into the region.
Other plans include the deployment of 650MW of off-grid electricity to rural communities through small to mid-scale hydro power plants, and the completion of the INGA dam network.
But the DRC’s lack of infrastructure means other sources – such as emissions from rubbish dumps – are impossible to tackle for now, cautions Mpanu Mpanu.
“The waste management system in Kinshasa is a mess, so we cannot say we can reduce emissions from that. We need more resilient infrastructure.”
All this comes at a cost of nearly $30 billion, just below the DRC’s annual GDP. It is a big ask for a country which a 2014 Transparency International report said suffers from “entrenched corruption”.
And according to Simon Counsell from Rainforest Foundation UK, which follows developments in the DRC closely, addressing this will be a “major factor” in ensuring funds on scale can be mobilised.
“Serious questions have already been raised in relation to one of the key mitigation sectors (forestry) and is likely to restrain funding there,” he said in an email to RTCC.
Still, the climate plan does break down the bill into specific requirements and Mpanu Mpanu maintains it has been rigorously costed.
“We also have to be serious. This is not a Christmas wish list,” he says.
“We really crunched the numbers looking at what was on the shelf, looking at the size of country and out potential – so for us we believe those make sense.”
Of the proposed mitigation actions, forests account for 41% of the cost, energy 21%, and agriculture 28%.
The plan calls for $2 billion of urban and rural energy projects, $3.5 billion to help with afforestation and $1 billion to help with better techniques in small scale forest protection.
A further $300 million is needed to rehabilitate land scarred by mining and oil and educate local populations to prevent forest fires, while $240,000 is earmarked to plant 130,000 hectares of forest close to big cities.
All of this, he stresses, will take time.
“The DRC is a post-conflict country where everything is a priority. We can’t say ‘why not have better forest governance?’ when you have to build hospitals, schools and roads.”
Concerns over data and transparency are not exclusive to the DRC, as a recent study revealing China’s emissions may be 14% lower than previously estimated demonstrates.
This is likely to be just the start of a round of scrutiny of national climate plans by civil society, the UN and at an October summit convened by the EU and Morocco.
Yet senior diplomats are getting twitchy over the lack of plans from top emitters. On Thursday, EU climate chief Miguel Arias Canete called out six countries, including Brazil and India.
Mpanu Mpanu hopes the DRC submission will encourage others to speed up their delivery. If one of the world’s poorest countries can work out a plan, so can anyone.
“That’s one of the things that we are trying to do. We want to put people on spot so they can understand if we are able to deliver then nobody should have any excuse,” he says.
“The substance is there. Now it’s just about repackaging it. Nobody should have an excuse. If you wait for the money you get into a chicken and egg situation.”