The area of land given over to oil and gas extraction in Africa is set to quadruple, threatening to wipe out a third of the dense tropical forests in the Congo basin and accelerate the climate breakdown, a report warns.
Almost 10% of the African continent is already covered by oil and gas production fields, but this could expand to almost 38% if proposals for new projects get the go-ahead – unleashing a huge carbon bomb into the atmosphere that would severely undermine global climate action, according to mapping and analysis by Rainforest Foundation UK and Earth Insight.
Fossil fuel extraction, deforestation and human rights violations often go hand in hand, and in Africa 30% of oil and gas fields overlap with forests that sustain tens of millions of people, and store water and capture carbon that helps neutralise human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
A staggering 90% of the dense forests under threat from new fossil fuel investments are in the Congo basin, the world’s second largest forest after the Amazon. This equates to 64m hectares (158m acres) – an area twice the size of Germany – which overlaps with 150 existing or planned oil and gas exploration fields.
“Oil and gas expansion poses a stark threat to the Congo basin forest and its millions of inhabitants least responsible for the climate crisis. Achieving climate justice for them means polluting countries in the global north stepping up to rapidly decarbonise their own economies and supporting rainforest countries to transition to a low-carbon future,” said Joe Eisen, the executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK.
The basin’s forests are spread over Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, a region with more than 150 distinct minority groups, according to the report.
More than 35 million people live in designated or proposed oil and gas fields, including hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples, who have deep-rooted connections with the land and have a legally binding right to a free, prior and informed consultation before any project is agreed on their ancestral territories. The area also includes river systems, savannahs, and swamp forests supporting thousands of species of tropical plants, birds and endangered wildlife from forest elephants and chimpanzees to mountain gorillas.
The DRC covers 60% of the basin, and so is central to the fate of the region and its forests. In July, the DRC government began auctioning off 30 oil and gas fields covering more than 11m hectares of tropical forest – an area nearly the size of England, and part of which overlaps with peatlands capable of storing vast amounts of greenhouse gases that developed nations continue to emit.
Last month, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, asked the DRC to reduce the amount of land at auction, to which the Congolese environment minister, Ève Bazaiba, responded: “As much as we need oxygen, we also need bread.”
About three-quarters of the Congolese people live on less than $2 (£1.75) a day, according to World Bank figures, despite the DRC’s huge reserves of minerals and vast potential for renewables. Fossil fuel extraction rarely lifts the most affected communities out of poverty, instead it often exacerbates existing economic, health and social inequalities.
Climate finance – funding from rich countries that reflects the economic benefits gained from burning fossil fuels – to help poorer nations pay for climate mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage is at the heart of the Cop27 negotiations in Egypt.
“What the world needs now are 21st-century solutions that put people, nature, and climate stability first. The international community needs to support Congo basin countries in charting new paths to leave oil and gas in the ground and preserve the rich natural and cultural heritage of the region,” said Tyson Miller, Earth Insight’s executive director.
African climate justice activists have repeatedly called out their political leaders and the west for increasing investments in gas amid rising fossil fuel costs caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, in what has been called the dash for African gas. Short-term benefits – lower energy costs in Europe and cash windfalls for some African governments – will lock the continent into polluting and costly fossil fuels for decades to come, according to Lorraine Chiponda from the Don’t Gas Africa campaign.
“We cannot allow Europe’s fossil fuel crisis to distract from discussion about loss and damage. This is a false solution and a colonial agenda,” she said.