Do African Dryland Forests Remove Carbon?

By: Dr. Hassan Sachedina (BCP), Dr. Marius van der Vyver (BCP) & Dr. Tim Tear (Biodiversity Research Institute)

Each new week brings a new net-zero pledge by a different country or company. It is encouraging to see the global commitment towards climate change mitigation growing. It is, however, worrying to see a rift appearing in the market between projects that are seen to remove carbon like tree planting or engineered carbon capture pitted against protecting indigenous forests through REDD+ projects. The aim of this blog is to encourage an ‘and/and’ approach to scaling up all climate mitigation solutions, and to try to dispel the myth of the ‘either/or’ at this critical juncture. The science shows that we are behind track, and that we need every tool in the toolkit to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. We are concerned that the perception that protecting old forests is irrelevant to climate change is misleading, and risks reducing funding for conserving important wildlife landscapes, and this could negatively impact communities. With deforestation increasing 12% in 2020 to 12 million hectares globally, and atmospheric carbon surpassing 420 ppm in 2021, there is neither the time nor logic to exclude REDD+ projects from carbon markets.

What is needed globally are large scale efforts that reduce carbon concentrations in the air. REDD+ projects avoid deforestation: they keep carbon sequestered that would have been added to the atmosphere. Tropical forests protected by REDD+ also remove additional carbon from the atmosphere. The next paragraph is a practical and pragmatic example of how this approach has played out in Zambia, to the benefit of real people, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Zambia is one of Africa’s most forested countries (60%), but also has one of the highest amounts of deforestation by landcover per year of any African country (~300,000 ha per annum). Zambia is also listed by the World Bank as a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC). In the last 12 months, BCP has made direct transformational payments of $4.3 million to 12 communities partnering in the Luangwa Community Forests Project (LCFP). Had the pandemic not happened, this benefit flow would still have exceeded tourism revenues to communities. With the tourism collapse and reduction in philanthropy due to COVID, REDD+ payments have become the single largest source of community revenues in history.

Adjacent to the LCFP is BCP’s pilot 40,000 ha Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project (LZRP) which is 90 kms as the crow flies from the capital city of Lusaka. The evidence of deforestation along this route is stark; barren due to charcoal production and agricultural clearing in this peri-urban area. The difference between the REDD+ forest is so marked that we nicknamed the forest type “cathedral miombo” for how the canopy interlocks high overhead. Historically though, while the forest remained intact in this area, wildlife was depleted due to poaching. When the project started, the forest was a proverbial ‘emerald desert’.

Following its formation in 2012, The LZRP went on to become Africa’s first CCB triple gold validated REDD+ project, and has since passed 7 VCS verifications. Developing the project was an uphill task and took a team of dedicated individuals, together with community and Government partners to achieve. Our first task was the hard and slow process of building alliances with community neighbors. The second was forest management and restoration. After our first few VCS audits, it became clear that the trees were growing. We did not expect this: this was meant to be a stable old forest. The two key management interventions we put in place were the reduction of fire and the promotion of wildlife. To monitor if our protection impacted wildlife species, we partnered with Lion Landscapes to monitor population trends of key wildlife species. The findings have been significant, such as the increase in roan antelope, plus most other grazers and browsers.

Our forest inventory data shows an increase in average stem diameter per year and an increase of trees per hectare, which on average removes 1.1 kg of CO2e per annum per tree. If we take the mean density of trees in LZRP to be 498 per hectare, the CO2e accumulation over the project accounting area is 18,561 tCO2e annually. When we expand this across the 1 million ha of both projects that BCP implements (LCFP and LZRP), the forests in the two projects are removing an additional 285,358 tons of CO2e per annum, which is 19% of the annual net emissions reductions of both projects.

Growing forests accumulate and store carbon. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it as cellulose, lignin, and other compounds. The rate of accumulation is equal to growth minus removals minus decomposition. In well-managed forests, growth should exceed removals and decomposition, so the amount of carbon stored increases overall. Research has shown that between 2001 and 2019, the world’s forests sequestered about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted absorbing a net 7.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year (1.5 times more carbon than the Unites States emits annually).

We hypothesize that in our projects that the reduction of annual hot fires and increased wildlife is restoring a degraded forest where trees now thrive. Increased wildlife trample and eat fuel that would have burned, and convert it to fertilizer deposited on the forest floor. When trees, even fire evolved ones, experience less fire stress and receive nutrient cycling from manure and decomposition of unburned vegetation, they grow larger.

But what if our efforts in Zambia are a small outlier, with little relevance to global climate change mitigation? Or are we just beginning to understand the extent of active ecological restoration in terms of its importance to mitigating climate change?

After the Amazon and Congo basin forests, Miombo woodlands are the 3rd largest forest type on earth. The Miombo woodland biome is also Africa’s most valuable habitat for ecosystem services – providing more direct benefits to Africa’s rural communities than any other habitat type. Fire and herbivory are fundamental disturbance factors in shaping the evolution of the Miombo biome. Miombo woodlands have evolved with fire and thus recover quickly after a fire occurrence, unlike most other forest types. The extent of the recovery depends on the fire intensity, frequency, and season. Fires in Miombo woodlands are a fact of life, but they need to be managed. When you look at a fire map of Africa, vast areas of Miombo dominated countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, and Angola burn annually. While the image of fires in California, Australia, and Nepal in the media dominate, the truth is that 75% of emissions from savanna fires actually originate in Africa (Lipsett-Moore et al. 2018).

Relatively simple changes in fire management can make a huge difference – like shifting to cooler early-season burns and reducing the frequency of fires in areas that burn regularly. Repeated hot fires over time can result in a decline in forest quality reducing other vital ecosystem benefits that local communities depend upon. With over 40% of the planet’s land degraded and emitting carbon, restoring African ecosystems by these two, relatively simple habitat management actions of reducing fire and increasing wildlife are key tools to remove carbon from the air and store it in the soil and trees. Methodologies exist to generate soil carbon credits from changes to livestock management. Wildlife is more mobile, harder to herd, and occurs at lower densities than livestock. But because wildlife performs a similar herbivory function they may help ecosystems to accrue carbon more quickly in biomass and soils. It is a shift in thinking for African conservationists to see wildlife as a tool to remove carbon from the air. Even if the carbon removed by wildlife restoration is incremental, the incentives to landowners and communities to conserve biodiversity are potentially meaningful. These findings have not been scientifically validated yet, but together with partners, BCP is working to scale up our fire and wildlife conservation efforts and to explore carbon methodology applications to monetize these efforts without double counting credits we generate from REDD+.

A recent study (Plumptre et al. 2021) estimates only 2.9% of the global land area to be intact in terms of fauna biodiversity, which can be expanded up to 20% if the faunal composition was restored with the introduction of 1-5 species. Our project areas fall within this potential zone where most of the habitat is still in good condition to restore these mammal species assemblages and thus restore the landscape and its required ecosystem patterns and processes. If we can also successfully manage fire at scale in the same wildlife habitats, this could also benefit local communities and reduce emissions. As a conservation social enterprise, whose mission is to make conservation of wildlife habitat valuable to people, BCP is excited at the prospect that there is another possible incentive towards conserving wildlife.

The metrics are alarming. Since 1974, elephants have declined 71% from roughly 1.4 million to 400,000, and lions have declined 90% from an estimated 200,000 in 1975 to only 20,000 today. Africa’s population is projected to double by 2050 to 2.5 billion people, meaning more than a quarter of the world’s people will live in Africa. By 2100, Africa’s population is projected to grow another 80% to 4.5 billion people. That is a 291% population increase in the next 79 years! In 2018, Africa’s economy was under 3% of total global economic output. The consequence of rapid population growth combined with poverty will likely result in massive habitat loss and the continued decline of elephant, lion, and other species to remnant populations. Africa’s remaining forests are under pressure today and a further reason why there is no time to sideline forest carbon markets. Markets for carbon offsets and access to capital are needed to close the massive funding gap to protect remaining “giga-forests”. We term ‘giga-forests’ as habitats with the ability to store up to a billion tons of carbon while fostering viable populations of the world’s remaining biodiversity. The Luangwa Community Forests Project is one such ‘giga-forest’ but the world needs thousands of these giga-forests to be protected and financially sustainable. Carbon markets offer the best tool in a generation to restore and protect these giga-forests. An increase in offset pricing is needed to offset the opportunity costs that are likely to exponentially increase alongside population growth.

It is misleading to say that planting trees is more effective at carbon removal than protecting remaining intact forests. Old forests capture more carbon than tree planting because they have had centuries to establish roots and structures to store carbon in biomass and soils. As a global community, we do not have the time to focus our carbon strategy on planting trees alone, or technologically engineered solutions, which are not scalable yet. Both of these activities should be scaled up for sure. We have a cost-effective and ready tool in front of us by protecting old tropical forests. We cannot afford to squander this opportunity. The myriad of benefits of forest protection for communities, biodiversity, water, and the climate should on their own make the risk of scaling up REDD+ worthwhile—even for the staunchest of forest carbon skeptics.

What can we do?

We need access to carbon markets for REDD+ projects, alongside technological solutions and tree-planting. We also need policies that incentivize landowners to promote wildlife, and a methodology that enables wildlife increases and fire reductions to be able to monetize carbon offsets. It is important that access to capital to develop REDD+ projects continues to grow, and it is vital that the pricing of offsets increases to reflect the true value of the services these REDD+ projects provide.

It is well-known that habitat restoration at scale costs money – and carbon offsetting offers perhaps the greatest tool of our generation to close the conservation funding gap and lift millions of people out of poverty. This is the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and we can only hope that the important role that African dryland forest REDD+ projects serve in emissions reduction and biodiversity protection services is properly valued. Of course, we don’t believe that offsetting should replace deep decarbonization at source. Decarbonizing at source is imperative, but so is protecting and valuing remaining forests through verified high-quality REDD+ projects while there is still time to do so.


  1. Lipsett-Moore, G.J., Wolff, N.H., & Game, E.T. (2018) Emissions mitigation opportunities for savanna countries from early dry season fire management Nat Commun 9, 2247.
  2. Plumptre AJ, Baisero D, Belote RT, Vázquez-Domínguez E, Faurby S, Jȩdrzejewski W, Kiara H, Kühl H, Benítez-López A, Luna-Aranguré C, Voigt M, Wich S, Wint W, Gallego-Zamorano J and Boyd C (2021) Where Might We Find Ecologically Intact Communities? Front. For. Glob. Change 4:626635. doi: 10.3389/ffgc.2021.626635.
  3. Photos by Edward Selfe.

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