The US and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have agreed to form a working group to protect the enormous Congo basin rainforest and peatlands, which are threatened by oil and gas exploration.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, made the announcement in Kinshasa on Tuesday while expressing his concern over the sale of dozens of oil and gas permits in the DRC that included blocks in Virunga national park and the Cuvette Centrale tropical peatlands, part of an area described as “the worst place on the planet“to drill for oil and gas.
Speaking alongside his DRC counterpart, Christophe Lutundula, after a meeting with the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, Blinken said Washington recognized the need for extra resources to protect the African country’s ecosystems, which he said were crucial for avoiding climate catastrophe.
Blinken said the working group would focus on growing the DRC’s economy and financing to protect the rainforest and peatlands, adding that Kinshasa can help protect the Earth’s atmosphere by making sure that mining and fossil fuel extraction projects only take place after a rigorous environmental impact assessment.
As part of a landmark $500m (£410m) forest protection deal signed with the DRC at Cop26 by Boris Johnson on behalf of a group of donor countries, Kinshasa has agreed to develop rules for environmental impact assessments for extractive projects by the end of 2023.
It is hoped these assessments will rule out oil and gas exploration in the world’s only remaining large rainforest that absorbs more carbon than it emits, and the planet’s largest tropical peatlands, which store the equivalent of three years’ global emissions from fossil fuels.
“On climate, the Democratic Republic of Congo is vital to the future of the planet. It’s as simple as that. The Congo basin rainforest absorbs more carbon than is emitted by the entire continent of Africa. It’s a place of tremendous biodiversity. Its rainfall helps sustain agriculture across the region,” said Blinken, who is on a tour of sub-Saharan Africa.
“We agreed to work together to establish a formal working group to help Congolese achieve a balanced approach to responsible development of the country’s resources that contributes to Congo’s economic growth and to generating jobs. By conserving irreplaceable forests and other ecosystems and by undertaking development projects only after carrying out rigorous environmental impact assessments, the DRC can act on behalf of all the world’s people to protect our shared home,” he said.
Lutundula said the DRC was committed to protecting his country’s ecosystems while solving Kinshasa’s “paradox” of being a wealthy country with a poor population. Rich in many of the natural resources needed for the low-carbon transition, the DRC has sought to position itself as a climate solutions country, but environmentalists have criticized the oil and gas permits auction.
“The challenge is to find an equilibrium,” Lutundula said in the press conference with Blinken, by balancing the wellbeing of Congolese people and guaranteeing “a development framework”.
The results of last month’s auction are expected to be announced by the DRC in the next few weeks. Even if no projects go ahead, environmentalists fear that the creation of new roads and infrastructure to explore for fossil fuels will enable more deforestation in a country second only to Brazil in primary forest loss in 2021.