Nestled into the giant Congo Basin rainforest, Gabon is one of the most carbon-positive countries in the world with more than 88% of its landmass covered in tropical rainforest.
It has been hailed in Africa and across the world as a country that has implemented some of the most-forward thinking and effective climate policies.
Politicians and business leaders gathered in the capital Libreville in early March for a two-day “One Forest” summit, looking at lessons Gabon can teach the rest of the world on forest management. The summit was hosted by President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and attended by several other Central African heads of state, as well as President Emmanuel Macron of France.
President Macron gave the keynote speech in a rare address from a Western head of state at an Africa-focused climate conference.
“The Gabonese rainforest captures around one third of the carbon emissions produced by France each year,” he said. “In the last 30 years, 220 million hectares of rainforest has disappeared – the equivalent of the Congo Basin rainforest. The objective of this One Forest summit is to mobilise efforts to save these precious rainforests”.
The French president paid tribute to Gabon’s leadership in protecting the huge rainforest. He said that a key way to preserve it was to find an economic activity that adds value to the forest without cutting down the trees.
Gabon is a good example, he said, as it has managed to set up a thriving timber industry without laying waste to the precious natural resource. In 2010, Gabon implemented a total ban on the export of raw timber in an effort to encourage local and international companies to set up wood-processing businesses.
At around the same time, it set up the Gabon Special Economic Zone (GSEZ) on the outskirts of Libreville to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) into the sector. More than 150 companies are now present in the zone making everything from plywood to veneer and high-end furniture.
The range of companies has had a marked knock-on effect on the rest of the timber value chain. All the timber that comes into the zone, which processes around a third of the country’s wood, must come from designated logging sites in Gabon’s forest, which is strictly managed.
The government has enforced strict regulations for logging companies working in Gabon, ensuring that all firms must comply with FSC standards by 2025. Gabon currently has around 5.5m hectares of certified forest, almost half of the certified area in the three countries of the Congo Basin.
West must do more
However, President Bongo said that despite Gabon’s efforts to preserve the critical rainforests, developed nations have not yet given the country the support and recognition it needs.
“The majority of the tropical rainforests are in developing nations which do not always have the resources to preserve them. But rather than applaud our achievements, the developed world does not seem interested. There is collective reluctance for the developed world to pay for our services to the climate.” He added that without financial backing it is hard to make sure that these forests are worth more alive than dead.
One way of driving finance into the country’s rainforest is through carbon credits – Gabon captures more than 140m tonnes of carbon annually and emits only 40m, giving it vast potential to sell credits to companies that wish to offset their emissions.
Gabon announced last year that it was looking to issue 187m carbon credits, which would be the largest ever such issuance. However, Bongo says that investors have not yet been forthcoming in putting money on the table, which has become a huge challenge for forest nations issuing carbon credits.
€100m pledged to fight deforestation
In order to help support Gabon’s conservation efforts, the conference adopted the “Libreville Plan”, which aims to stop deforestation as an effective solution in the fight against climate change.
Donors, sovereigns and climate-partners came together to create a €100m ($105m) fund, with France committing €50m, followed by Conservation International at €30m and the Walton Foundation at €20m.
The funds will be available to countries that “want to accelerate their strategy to protect vital carbon and biodiversity reserves through partnerships,” said Macron.
The fund will be used to reward exemplary countries that have conserved their forests by giving them “biodiversity certificates”, the French president said.
He added: “We are betting on the request of a number of companies to buy these certificates, this would be part of their corporate social responsibility policy, and in so doing they will finance territories in the large forest basins that protect their biodiversity and who are also working for the sustainable development of indigenous populations and local communities. This is the same principle as for carbon credits.”
Carbon credits in question
Indeed, Macron said that the carbon market has been “adrift in recent years” and it risks becoming a “failing model”.
One reason behind the failure is that there is a lack of environmental transparency and some of the projects that are meant to offset emissions are not actually that good for the environment. Another is that the market has become associated with corruption, with consultants, carbon brokers and project developers making a lot of money off a poorly-understood system.
“This bottom-up voluntary carbon market was created but it will never scale until we figure out a balance and clarity between supply and demand,” said M Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. “We can create a wonderful biodiversity credit. And we can create nature certificates – but where is the demand? Where are the buyers?”
Ultimately, if investors are not interested in funding monetary instruments that attach value to the preservation of nature then most of the models will fail.
In a stark warning to the audience, Lee White, Gabon’s minister of forests, oceans, environment and climate change, said that the loss of the country’s rainforest would have disastrous effects.
“The forest here represents a stock of 10 years of carbon emissions,” he said. “If we lose this forest we will simply lose the fight against climate change and condemn our children to live in a world that is two, three or four degrees hotter.”