If measures proposed by the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect its tropical forests are not enacted, it could result in a significant uptick in the nation’s deforestation rate, according to a recent study.

According to the paper, published by the journal PLOS ONE, forests blanket 1.1 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) of the DRC and contain an estimated 22 billion metric tons of carbon. It’s the second-largest forest carbon stock on the planet.

The DRC has proposed measures to preserve its forests under the U.N.-based Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) system, including a suggestion to increase its area of protected land from 10 percent of the country to 15 percent.

Without such measures, the new study found, the nation’s deforestation rates could rise to 3,430 square kilometers per year in the case of an agricultural boom, emitting about 212 million tons of carbon dioxide annually by the 2040s. By 2050, the nation could lose over 155,480 square kilometers of forest—an area bigger than the state of Georgia.

If forest protection proposals are put in place, the study projects the DRC would lose about 2,158 square kilometers of forest per year through 2050, emitting 49 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Until now, civil wars and continued political instability have meant deforestation rates in the African nation remained relatively low compared to other tropical forest countries, according to Gillian Galford, lead author of the report and researcher with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont.

“We’re at a critical or pivotal moment in the history of these African forests,” said Galford, adding, “we could see really rapid deforestation and agricultural conversion with large foreign investment—that could happen with a flip of a switch.”

Will the DRC see a palm oil ‘boom’?
Galford and her co-authors developed a computer model to create maps showing potential forest losses under three future scenarios over the next several decades.

One scenario was based on historical trends, which showed what might happen if no additional protections are placed on the DRC’s forests.

The second was a scenario modeled for a future of increased expansion of industrial farms growing crops like oil palm, a product that is blamed for significant forest losses in other nations like Indonesia. In the DRC, the study states, growing international demand for palm oil led to an increase in the nation’s production of the product from 175,000 tons per year in the 1990s to 215,000 tons in 2010.

“We’re seeing, across Africa, a lot of foreign land purchases for large-scale agriculture,” Galford said. “It’s a moment where development could really boom.”

The deforestation rate was projected to increase under both these scenarios, although markedly more so under a future of greater agricultural expansion.

“It is unlikely that historically low rates of deforestation can persist in the face of growing pressures to clear land due to increases in population, demand for wood and charcoal, cropping with reduced fallow periods leading to soil degradation, and international interests in large scale land investments for oil, biofuel and other crops,” the study states.

But if proposed protections are put in place, the study projects a much smaller area of forest would be lost—41,650 square kilometers, over 113,000 square kilometers less than under the agricultural development scenario.

Funding needed to ensure forests are protected
Galford believes protecting the DRC’s forest carbon stock and promoting the nation’s economic development aren’t mutually exclusive goals.

“If you think about doing it in a way that’s both good for rural farmers and good for forests, you have a win-win situation, and that’s what our conservation scenario plays out,” she said.

For example, she said, aid to help farmers make their land more productive will also help forests stay standing.

Through the REDD+ mechanism, wealthy nations would pony up funding in exchange for successful anti-deforestation policies put in place by the DRC government.

However, ramping up REDD+ in the DRC is likely to be no easy task. A paper published in 2013 in the journal Forest Policy and Economics said that while the emerging governance structure needed for the mechanism to work appears promising, international financial support is essential to keeping the DRC’s forests intact.

“The State has limited capacity to implement the policy reforms or programs needed to significantly alter the underlying drivers of deforestation,” the 2014 study stated. “Hence, REDD+ in DRC is likely to achieve its overall goals only if reliable long-term performance-based sources of financing are available to the country.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500