Climate change in the Green Heart of Africa

Tropical rainforest. Western Congo Basin, Gabon. rel=
Tropical rainforest. Western Congo Basin, Gabon.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

Severe impacts in the long term

The forests of the Congo River Basin play an important role in regulating local rainfall and climate. They also absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas emitted mainly from burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas - and the major driver for global climate change. But what happens when these forests are lost?

Understanding the basic mechanisms

Water released by tropical rainforest plants into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration (evaporation and plant transpiration) and to the ocean by the rivers, influences world climate and the circulation of ocean currents. This process also sustains the regional climate on which the rainforest depends.

In the Congo River Basin, a massive 75 to 95% of the rainfall is generated by the region’s forests by evapotranspiration, while the rest is brought from outside.

This means that any reduction in forest cover will have a direct impact on precipitation and the local climate, triggering a cascade of problems. For instance, plant species richness of tropical rainforests is positively correlated with rainfall, and biodiversity tends to be linked to plant species richness.1

How the Congo Basin forests contribute to global climate change

Forest loss and degradation in Central Africa (including the Congo River Basin) are likely responsible for the release of more carbon to the atmosphere than any other land use practice on the continent.2

Similar trends of forest lost and carbon release are expected in the future if deforestation continues unabated. Because industrialization is still low in the region, the greatest potential source of CO2 emissions from sub-Saharan Africa in the years to come are the forests of the Congo River Basin.3

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has the greatest share of tropical rainforest in the region, has the biggest responsibility to ensure that carbon emissions from Sub-Saharan Africa do not increase significantly.4

Still, scientists expect that continued deforestation  will contribute substantially to global climate change within and beyond the Congo River Basin.5

Regional impacts of global climate change

Although specific knowledge of effects of climate change needs further investigation in the Congo River Basin, evidence from a few studies highlight severe impacts in the long-term.

Many endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – with restricted ranges, are most at risk from minor climatic changes.6  One example is the endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which is found on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.

Within this small area, surrounded by a dense human population density, the mountain gorilla lives between altitudes of 2,500 and 4,000 m.

That doesn’t leave the species much freedom of movement. As the climate changes, the mountain gorilla’s habitat may also change to such an extent that it will no longer be suitable for the primate. With no suitable place to live in, the species may die out - and become extinct.

Clearly, the ability of the Congo River Basin to withstand the current and future impacts of climate change will be seriously compromised if the forests continue to be degraded and destroyed.7

Climate change is already happening

The world has warmed by about 0.7°C since beginning of industrialisation. And the impacts can be seen in many regions of the world.
Based on scientific information, WWF and other environmental groups have pointed out that massive changes in our natural environment will happen once we cross the line of a warming of 2°C.

What is WWF doing about this problem?
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1 Baidya Roy S., Walsh P. D., Lichstein J. W. 2005. Can logging in equatorial Africa affect adjacent parks? Ecology and Society 10(1): 6.
2  Gaston G., Brown S., Lorenzini M., Singh K.D. 1998. State and change in carbon pools in the forests of tropical Africa. Global Change Biology 4:97- 114.
3 BSP. 1992a. Central Africa. Global Climate change and Development. Synopsis. Biodiversity Support Program (A Consortium of the WWF, TNC, and WRI). Funded by the USAID. Corporate Press, Landover, MD. 20 pp.
4 Graham R.L., Perlack R. D., Prasad A. M., Waddle D. B.  1990. Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prepared by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN. for the Office of Technical Resources, Bureau for Africa, USAID, Washington, D.C. ORNL-6640. 135 pp.
5 BSP. 1992a. Central Africa. Global Climate change and Development. Synopsis. Biodiversity Support Program (A Consortium of the WWF, TNC, and WRI). Funded by the USAID. Corporate Press, Landover, MD. 20 pp.
6 CARPE. 2005. Forests of the Congo River Basin: a preliminary assessment. Balmar. Washington DC.
7 BSP. 1992a. Central Africa. Global Climate change and Development. Synopsis. Biodiversity Support Program (A Consortium of the WWF, TNC, and WRI). Funded by the USAID. Corporate Press, Landover, MD. 20 pp.

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