Saving the Three Basins means stopping fossil fuel expansion

Planned oil and gas blocks cover an area the size of France in the Brazilian Amazon

View from the Congo River between Kinshasa and Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo credit: Olivier Girard/CIFOR)


The president of the Republic of Congo will today host the Summit of the Three Basins alongside leaders from the Amazon, Congo, and Borneo-Mekong river basins with the aim of drumming up global support to preserve their forests and ecosystems.

In recent weeks, record drought has pushed the Amazon river to its lowest level in over a century affecting nearly half a million people and causing severe damage to ecosystems including the death of more than 100 river dolphins from high water temperatures.

The big elephant in the room in is fossil fuels, the main driver of these climate impacts, which are responsible for over 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.

The expansion of fossil fuels also threatens millions of vulnerable people and tropical forests across the three basins.

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Data from Earth Insight says that planned oil and gas blocks overlap with roughly 65 million hectares in the Amazon – an area the size of France. In the Congo, the figure is even bigger, 72 million and in Southeast Asia its 35 million.

The combination of exploiting fossil fuels and other industry activities driving deforestation with rising global temperatures could cause these ecosystems in these basins to collapse.

Breaching these tipping points could see these lush ecosystems transition into dry and degraded savannas unable to support biodiversity and releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

But there is hope. Remarkably, Ecuador became the first country last August to hold a referendum where voters overwhelmingly backed limiting oil exploitation in the mega-diverse Yasuní National Park.

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Despite facing the brunt of the climate emergency and having less responsibility for causing it, countries in the Global South appear to be leading the charge to confront it.

The Colombian government, which has been pushing for an end to oil development in the Amazon, has announced that it would not approve new oil and gas exploration projects and joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, and the  Powering Past Coal Alliance.

Antigua and Barbuda and Timor-Leste recently joined a growing number of governments, cities and other actors pushing for the negotiation of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This type of leadership required to end fossil fuel expansion, equitably phase out existing production and foster international cooperation to accelerate a transition is critical.

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Meanwhile, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Norway are responsible for half of the planned expansion from new oil and gas fields through 2050, despite their special responsibility and capacity to act given their historical contribution to global heating. BP, Shell and ExxonMobil have also recently scaled back their efforts to back renewable energy.

These developments ignore the warnings from the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists and the International Energy Agency, which say there can be no new oil and gas fields approved or new coal-fired power stations to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Rich countries and corporations need to lead the transition away from fossil fuel projects at home and work with countries in the Global South to equitably phase down fossil fuels and finance renewable energy alternatives.

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International cooperation is required to establish a moratorium on all industrial activity in primary and priority forests in these areas until 2050 to protect critical ecosystems and while setting up adequate financing mechanisms like debt relief, payments for environmental services and redirecting subsidies to support countries to shift away from extractive industries.

The Global North must support developing countries with the transition. In Colombia, if national policymakers do not respond proactively to the global energy transition, the country could face lost economic output of more than USD 88 billion (or 27% of 2019 GDP) between now and 2050 in a world that de-carbonises in line with the Paris Agreement.

This is not only about reducing emissions but also supporting countries in the Global South with a just and orderly energy transition and managing the fiscal risks and restructuring of economies dependent on fossil fuels.

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Led by the richest countries, public subsidies to fossil fuels, which reached a record of US$7 trillion last year, must be drastically reduced and redirected to supporting renewable energy, reducing deforestation and boosting climate resilience in poorer countries.

The former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, is calling for a US$25 billion global windfall levy on fossil fuel profits paid by the richest petrostates including Norway and the Gulf states, a mere 3% of the export earnings of these major producers.

At the UN climate talks (COP28) next month in Dubai, all countries must support a global commitment and specific dates to phase-out fossil fuels.

Rich countries should honour their pledges in 2021 to end international public finance for fossil fuels which continues to run into the billions of dollars.

Equally, the world’s 60 largest banks, which have poured $5.5 trillion into the fossil fuel industry since 2015 must align their financing with the 1.5°C limit.

The Global North and its corporations need to step up. Crucially, there is a brighter future possible as staying below 1.5°C would save the global economy US$12 trillion by 2050 and would create double the amount of jobs as would be lost in the fossil fuel industry.

While unlikely leaders in the Global South are taking the baton, the Global North is dithering with dire consequences for us all.

Guy Edwards is a PhD student at Sussex University, a former senior consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank and co-author of A Fragmented Continent: Latin America and the Global Politics of Climate Change.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, co-founder and research director of the Rapid Transition Alliance and author of Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions.

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