It is the greatest paradox of our age: in attempting to solve the problem of climate change, we are turning Africa into the planet’s biggest mine and quarry and destroying its forests and carbon sinks.
There are few sadder sights in many poor African countries than seeing a barefooted ten-year old girl carrying a pile of branches on her head. There are few sadder sounds than a chainsaw cutting down yet another majestic tree.
Africa is seeing massive destruction of its natural habitat. In 2020, the continent had 636.64 million hectares of forest, accounting for 16% of the world’s forested areas. Some 46.5% is located in eastern and southern Africa, 48% in western and central Africa and 5.5% in northern Africa. The continent witnessed the greatest annual rate of net forest loss of any region in the world, at 3.94 million hectares, between 2010 and 2020, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. South America was in second place at 2.6 million hectares a year. Africa’s rate of net forest loss has increased in each of the three decades since 1990, and has jumped from 3.28 million hectares in 1990.
Four countries in Africa are among the top ten globally in terms of their annual net loss of forest. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in second place and losing more than 1.1 million hectares a year (Brazil is is first position and losing 1.5 million hectares). Angola is in fourth spot at more than 555,000 hectares, Tanzania is fifth with 421,000 hectares and Mozambique is tenth with 223,000 hectares.
Africa has lost 800,000 hectares of tropical mountain forest over the past 20 years, mostly in the DRC, Uganda and Ethiopia, according to York University in the UK. This loss emitted more than 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If current deforestation rates continue, a further 500,000 hectares of this kind of forest will be lost by 2030. Around 5% of Africa’s tropical mountain forests have been cleared since the turn of the millennium and in some countries the rate exceeds 20%.
In the continent, an area the size of the Netherlands is being lost to deforestation every year. Between 1990 and 2020, eastern and southern Africa lost around 15% of the carbon stored in their forests while western and central Africa lost 14%. By 2050, Africa is expected to lose 50% of its birds and mammals. Among the seven primate species on the verge of extinction on the planet, six are in West Africa where deforestation and bushmeat hunting is rife.
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Population growth putting pressure on Africa’s forests
Africa has been losing its woods and forests for a long time and the reasons are myriad. A lot of it is down to population growth and urbanisation. The continent has the planet’s highest fertility rate at 4.8 births per woman (compared with a global average of 2.5 births), according to the UN. Its population is expected to jump to 2.5 billion people by the year 2050 from 1.3 billion today. By the end of this century, Africa will be home to 13 of the planet’s 20 biggest urban areas, up from just two today.
Undoubtedly, the demographics are putting a lot of pressure on Africa’s forests. Wood fuels are by far the most widely used method of cooking in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 90% of the region’s population relies on firewood or charcoal. Charcoal is mostly used in urban centres while firewood is the predominant form of wood fuel used in rural areas.
However, Africa’s forests are now bearing another overwhelming pressure – the mining of the critical metals needed for the world’s energy transition and for the global technology revolution.
At least 30 times as much lithium, nickel and other key minerals could be required by the electric car and battery storage industries by 2040 to meet global climate targets, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Similarly, the rise of low-carbon power generation to meet climate goals means a tripling of mineral demand from this sector by 2040. Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has surged by 50% as the share of renewables in new investment has increased.
The IEA declared in May 2021 that we are witnessing a massive industrial conversion that marks a “shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system”.
An electric car uses six times the amount of battery metals compared with a conventional car, according to the IEA. An onshore wind farm requires nine times more mineral resources than an equivalent gas plant; an offshore wind plant requires 12 times. To get to net zero, Europe will require up to 26 times the amount of rare earth metals in 2050 compared with today.
New scramble for Africa's mineral resources
A new scramble for Africa's resources is under way, made more urgent by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (both countries are important global sources of critical metals). Africa is abundant in critical materials, but they are largely unexplored. Major global powers are already pushing for deals. Capital is being attracted to a region where labour is inexpensive and environmental protections are virtually non-existent. However, the world cannot afford a race to the bottom in critical metals.
Africa has some of the world’s biggest deposits of minerals essential to the energy transition: nickel, cobalt, graphite, lithium and rare earth elements. For example, it produces around 80% of the total world supply of platinum, 50% of manganese and two-thirds of cobalt. Guinea alone produces more than 20% of the world’s bauxite used in aluminium.
Countries such as Burundi, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia have significant quantities of rare earth elements, including neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium.
Demand for these minerals is expected to surge during the next five years because they are required for the production of batteries, wind turbines and solar energy.
The continent is also thought to have some of the greatest remaining untapped mineral reserves. Because of a lack of systematic geological mapping and exploration, the full extent of the region’s mineral base remains unknown, even though the race for Africa’s mineral wealth has been happening for over two centuries.
Supposedly, one of the greatest achievements of the COP26 climate conference in November 2021 was the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Around 145 countries – including the US, China and EU member states – committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.
However, 2030 is too far off – by that time a lot of Africa’s forests will have already been lost irrevocably. At COP27 – which takes place in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt on 6–18 November – world leaders must go further and put an immediate brake on Africa’s deforestation. This conference has been billed as Africa’s COP and it should be the one in which the region’s forests are protected once and for all.
In particular, the forests of the Congo River basin – the world’s second-largest tropical forest, a huge carbon store and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet – represent an absolute priority. The DRC is still providing industrial logs to Europe, China and North America. Deforestation on an industrial scale is taking place there for a number of reasons, but one of the main drivers is the over-exploitation of timber for export and illegal logging.
Deforestation must be avoided in the first place
Most African countries have also committed large amounts of land to forest restoration under the Bonn Challenge. Although forest restoration is useful, avoiding deforestation in the first place is a much greater priority. International aid should be tied to a government guarantee to conserve a country’s forests and woodlands and should be followed up by some sort of enforcement mechanism.
Mining for the needs of the energy transition should create an economic opportunity for Africa, but it is far from certain that it does. Most of the minerals produced in Africa are exported as ore without processing in the region. Africans do not really benefit from the ‘value added’ processes despite almost one-quarter of the region’s gross domestic product being dependent on nature. Instead, the monetisation of the continent’s mineral resources happens in the Middle East, the Far East, North America and Europe. China – an autocracy with little regard for the natural environment – is very much at the vanguard of the latest scramble for the region’s mineral wealth.
Africa’s habitats are being ruined for questionable value for the region’s inhabitants. Rehabilitation of the land once the mining has been completed is supposed to happen, but in many African countries this process is poorly supervised. The quality of life of many of the communities close to quarries and mines is declining owing to noise and particulate pollution. Places of astonishing natural beauty are being sacrificed. And it is not just the new mines – it is all the accompanying new roads and railways cutting a scythe through forests and savannah lands that are a cause for concern as well. In many cases, it is only the corrupt elites in the capital cities that really benefit (and the mining companies headquartered in Europe, North America and China, of course).
Management plans exist for less than 25% of forests in Africa – that figure is way too low. National governments must also start to run birth control campaigns so that Africa’s high fertility rates begin to come down. Poor Africans need to be weaned off charcoal and firewood. Small gas burners are the best option for many poor people.
Western consumers and investors are increasingly calling for companies to source minerals that are sustainably and responsibly produced. However, that is no easy task as most mineral supply chains are highly complex affairs. For example, aluminium smelted in Europe could come from alumina refined in the Middle East, which in turn could originate from bauxite mined in Guinea or Ghana. Most Western companies just do not take into account African deforestation in their environmental, social and governance strategies. That must change, and fast.
Furthermore, without efforts to improve environmental and social performance, it could be challenging for consumers to exclude poor-performing minerals as sufficient quantities of high-performing minerals may not exist to meet demand. The world is going to need a whole lot more minerals in the future and it will be hard to keep up with all the value chains. It will need minerals from mines that are not environmentally sensitive, as well as those that are.
Policymakers, scientists and CEOs of large companies in the West must start to pay greater attention to the collateral damage arising from a heedless rush to net zero, for trade-offs exist. One of the biggest trade-offs could be the loss of Africa’s forests.
Currently, we talk about mankind's carbon footprint. However, one day we could well be talking about mankind's metal footprint. In attempting to solve climate change, we must be careful not to turn Africa into one giant quarry. It will be no good if – in transitioning to climate neutrality – massive tracts of the continent are left uninhabitable by the mining of critical raw materials.