As leaders pledge to protect forests, Gabon points to how
Nov 2nd 2021RAPONDA WALKER ARBORETUM, LIBREVILLEGABON, A SMALL, family-run petrostate in west Africa, might seem a rather odd campaigner against global warming. Once Africa’s fifth-largest oil exporter, it profited by helping the world pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, however, it hopes to benefit from helping the world to avoid overheating instead, by encouraging rich countries to pay African ones to keep their forests standing. Its advocacy gained new impetus on November 2nd when the leaders of more than 100 countries pledged at the COP26 summit in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030. To help make it happen, rich countries promised to stump up $12bn.At least 85% of Gabon, which lies on the equator at the edge of the Gulf of Guinea, is covered in steaming jungle. It is one of six countries that form the massive forest of the Congo basin—the world’s second-biggest tropical rainforest, after the Amazon—which sucks in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and turns it into leaves and branches. (Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the two Congos and Equatorial Guinea are the other five.) Although Gabon is not the largest of this group of carbon sinks, its president, Ali Bongo, is the most eager to offer to protect his country’s forests in exchange for compensation from rich countries.Gabon’s argument is simple. Large rainforests such as those in the Congo basin provide a service to the world by sucking millions of tons of carbon from the air. Since performing this service provides no income, there has been little incentive for poor countries to protect their forests when they could instead profit by chopping them down for timber or clearing them for farming.The potential benefits are large. “The stock of carbon in the Congo basin adds up to six years of total global emissions,” says Lee White, Gabon’s environment minister, adding that Gabon alone absorbs the equivalent of one-third of France’s carbon emissions each year. Although it emits only around 25m tonnes of carbon a year, it sequesters about 140m tons, he reckons. Yet the six countries in the Congo basin used to suck far more carbon from the air than they do now. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the largest expanse of jungle of the six, is losing 500,000 hectares of it a year through deforestation. It will need some incentive to stop the chop. And countries such as Gabon, which have been protecting their forests, should be rewarded for having done so, he argues.The consequences of not doing so go beyond emissions. Mr White says the forests cause rain to fall across the Ethiopian highlands, the Nile valley and the southern rim of the Sahel. If these swathes of Africa dry up, waves of hungry people may spread across Africa, making the continent more prone to turmoil and strife. Many will also head north to Europe.The deal struck at COP included a pledge by 12 countries to provide $12bn in public funding to protect and restore forests. The countries, which include America, Germany, Japan and Britain, hope that will also open the taps to private funding. Quite how this money will be spent is not yet clear. But there are several ideas gaining ground.One is to pay countries that can show they have reduced emissions by preserving forests. The LEAF Coalition, a partnership of governments and big companies, has raised $1bn for this purpose. Another might be for countries or companies to sell “green bonds”, to finance climate-related projects. Fund managers and investors keen to burnish their environmental credentials are willing to pay a premium for these, allowing issuers to borrow at concessionary rates. It is an idea long championed by Andrew Mitchell, a climate-change scientist who founded the Natural Capital Finance Alliance. “If you stop deforestation, you should be compensated for forgoing other forms of economic development,” he says. “Forests should be worth more alive than dead.”It is not just governments that could raise money using green bonds, but also private firms such as the African Conservation Development Group, a Mauritius-registered company led by a South African, Alan Bernstein, that wants to mix virtue with profit, and finance its efforts by selling $300m worth of green bonds to companies that want to offset their own carbon emissions. It has bought a huge concession at Grande Mayumba, on Gabon’s south-west coastline, investing $200m in sugar, rubber, fishing, forestry, cattle-ranching, and—for the very rich—eco-tourism.Mr Mitchell is confident that African green bonds will eventually take off. But for the moment markets are still wary of buying all sorts of African bonds, let alone new-fangled green ones. One worry—politics—is amply demonstrated in Gabon. If investors are to pay more for green bonds financing forests, then they would have to be certain that the carbon absorbed within the trees would be contained there for many years. Many may wonder what might happen, for example, if Mr Bongo’s regime in Gabon were to fall? The question is far from academic. The Bongo family has run Gabon as a patronage-ridden fief for 54 years; no one pretends it is a democracy. At its most recent election, in 2016, it was obvious that the main challenger, Jean Ping, had won hands down. Moreover, Mr Bongo suffered a serious stroke three years ago and may not be well enough to run again. Should he die, it is unclear if his Eton-educated, half-French son Noureddin, not yet 30, would seek to replace him, presumably using the regime’s same old tricks.And without the backing of Mr Bongo, it is not at all clear that Mr White would be able to continue to protect the forest. As it is, his position is somewhat improbable. A 56-year-old white Briton, he started out as a biologist studying gorillas and forest elephants. For nearly ten years he ran Gabon’s newly created national parks until two years ago, when he exposed an illegal-logging scandal over the export of kevazingo, a beautiful reddish hardwood. In the fallout the president fired his vice-president and environment minister, and replaced the latter with Mr White (who has become a Gabonese citizen).Mr White has won widespread admiration for promoting tree-hugging and animal-coddling in Gabon, thereby bolstering Mr Bongo’s claim to be Africa’s green champion. But his policy is far from popular with the many villagers whose crops are routinely trampled by elephants. A standard cry among Gabonese tired of the ruling family runs, “Ali Bongo prefers elephants and trees to people.” It is a sentiment the leaders at the COP will need to get to grips with, if their plans to protect trees are to come to fruition.