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Limited scientific data on carbon in tropical Africa

A review of scientific literature on carbon stocks, emissions and sequestration in tropical Africa highlights the need for more research to increase effectiveness of carbon projects.

Many projects are carried out across sub-Saharan Africa that aim to halt loss of tropical forest and mitigate climate change. However, a thorough review of available primary data on carbon in tropical Africa has revealed that most of these interventions are based on limited scientific data.

A Proforest report, commissioned by the Forest Philanthropy Action Network (FPAN), reviewed more than 2000 peer-reviewed articles and analysed 52 existing carbon projects.  “The primary data reviewed for this report show average values for land uses and interventions are often built on scarce data points,” the authors note. “We found only 14 values from 5 publications for total carbon (soil and biomass) in intact moist tropical forest in tropical Africa. This is far too few on which to base calculations of average values across the continent.” By comparison, the British Forestry Commission makes policy decisions on the basis of regular assessments of over 15,000 1-hectare woodland plots across Great Britain.

“While it is possible to construct average values for different forest types from the African literature database we have compiled,” say the authors, “it is essential to be aware of the limitations of the underlying data, which are geographically widespread, have measured different aspects (e.g. above ground biomass, not soil carbon) , and have used different methods for compiling overall estimates.” Despite this degree in variation, the review re-affirmed that in all cases, mature forests have higher carbon stock values than other types of land uses, and that tree plantations had the highest recorded average rates of carbon accumulation compared to regeneration of natural forests.

However, more research and collection of primary data on carbon values related to land uses and interventions are required, which could lead to the development of more effective interventions. While the report acknowledges that many of the reviewed carbon projects bring a variety of benefits, including social, environmental and economic ones, the scientific rationale behind the choice of interventions was not always clear. The report estimates that the aggregated potential carbon savings of the reviewed projects would mitigate 0.32% of the suggested African annual emissions from land use change. While there are assumptions and uncertainties connected with the values and calculations which need to be considered, what the results do show is that these project interventions need to be dramatically scaled up to have a significant impact on land use change and carbon emission in Africa.

The Proforest review is part of a larger report published by FPAN that is aimed at philanthropic donors, public funding bodies and forest carbon companies that were interested in supporting efforts to halt the loss of tropical forests in Africa. The report, “Protecting and restoring forest carbon in tropical Africa: A guide for donors and funders”, provides an introduction and some initial guidance on important questions such as: which interventions to protect and restore Africa's tropical forest carbon are likely to be successful? Under what circumstances? And how can donors and funders engage most effectively?

FPAN is a UK registered charity which aims to encourage charitable trusts, foundations and private individuals to engage with the challenge of protecting enhancing forests, forster informed debate and dialogue on these issues, and produce research-based guidance for donors and funders who are looking to support effective action of forests.

The review was carried out in 2009 and 2010 and is based on a combination of scientific papers and project documents, reports, and grey literature materials published before September 2009. The project team also carried out a number of interviews with carbon project staff.

Published 11.08.2011

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