Empty pledges to plant more trees will not save the Congo Basin

More needs to be done to protect the world’s second-largest rainforest – and secure our collective future.

Logs are seen in Cameroon
Scenes from a logging company's operations in Mindourou, Cameroon [Brent Stirton/Getty Images]

Ten years ago the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as the International Day of Forests. Since then, every year the day has served as an opportunity for governments to profess their love for forests and highlight the leading role forests can and should play in the fight against climate change. This year was no different.

Only a couple of weeks after this year’s celebration, the third part of the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published. The report, drawing on the work of thousands of scientists, not only demonstrated once again that the world still has much work to do to avoid complete climate breakdown, but also highlighted the importance of protecting forests. It, however, also included a crucial warning against reforestation being perceived as a panacea for all the ills caused by the climate crisis.

“Growing forests and preserving soils”, the report said, “will not remedy the situation”. “Tree-planting cannot compensate for the continuous emissions from fossil fuels.”

It is true. It is impossible to plant our way out of the climate crisis. It takes centuries for newly planted trees (if they even survive) to be able to absorb carbon on the scale that existing rainforests do. Replantation also does nothing in the way of halting biodiversity loss.

If we are serious about preventing climate breakdown, we should stop fawning over politicians making tree planting pledges every year on the International Day of Forests and focus our attention on preventing deforestation, especially by finding ways to pull regions and communities out of poverty without destroying forests and biodiversity.

Africa, as the continent in line to suffer the most from climate change-related extreme weather events, water scarcity, coastal erosion, internal migration and conflict, especially needs to see timely and meaningful action – rather than empty pledges for new forests.

Sadly, not nearly enough is being done to preserve the continent’s precious rainforests.

Indeed, the Congo basin rainforest, the world’s second-largest spanning Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon is on course to completely disappear by 2100 due to severe deforestation. In 2020 alone, more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of primary forest were lost in the Congo Basin.

And despite countless pompous statements, pledges and accords to replant and protect, the region’s governments are doing very little to prevent the looming catastrophe.

In October 2021, Cameroon’s government revised its National Determined Contribution (NDC), committing to reduce emissions by 35 percent and secure 30 percent of its forests by 2030. Yet it also revealed its intention to allocate more than 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of additional forests for logging, and give the green light to more projects that would destroy forests in the name of revitalising the economy (such as the Camvert project which aims to build a huge palm oil plantation in the south region of Cameroon, destroying about 60,000 hectares of pristine forest in the process).

A few weeks later, the neighbouring DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi, alongside United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson who was representing the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), endorsed an ambitious $500m agreement to protect the Congo Basin rainforest at COP26 in Glasgow. Johnson and US President Joe Biden later posed for the cameras with Tshisekedi to celebrate the moves being made to protect the Congo Basin rainforest.

Yet during their PR efforts, the leaders failed to mention that in their haste to secure the deal before COP26, they chose to turn a blind eye to the DRC’s decision to lift a 20-year-old ban on new logging concessions – a ban meant to safeguard the forest from becoming a circus of illegalities, corruption and crimes against the environment.

Similar hypocrisy is also at play in the Republic of Congo and Gabon. In these countries, governments are regularly allowing for forests to be destroyed “legally” through logging and other initiatives, in the name of creating jobs, increasing production and lifting communities out of poverty.

Of course, for Indigenous communities affected by deforestation, and the lost biodiversity, it makes little difference whether the trees are removed “legally”. The carbon stored in a forest’s biomass is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide regardless of whether that forest was trashed under an “international agreement” or not.

Governments in Central Africa, along with Western donors, love to say that deforestation can at least drive communities out of extreme poverty. But science does not follow this political rhetoric. The last IPCC report estimates that in the next decade alone, climate change will drive 32-132 million more people into extreme poverty. Global warming will jeopardise food security, as well as increase the incidence of heat-related mortality, heart disease and mental health challenges.

Before the next festival of love for forests shows up in their calendars, including the next round of talks on the biodiversity convention set for June in Nairobi, our politicians must think of alternative pathways to really pull communities out of poverty. To start with, they should broaden the use of clean technologies to give universal access to energy and shift to ecological agriculture so food systems do not ruin our planet.

We now know countries can grow their economies while reducing emissions. The only way to achieve sustainable development and eradicate poverty in Central Africa is through ending deforestation and adopting equitable climate policies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.