In July 2022, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced that it was auctioning indefinite leases for oil and gas exploration. In total, the parcels cover over 800,000 square kilometers (about the size of the United Kingdom) across the DRC and include climate-sensitive lands as well as one of the last remaining mountain gorilla sanctuaries. This article argues that the government’s primary motive, however, is not oil and gas exploration. The government instead aims to leverage the threat of environmental destruction for increased international climate finance for the DRC and the Global South.
At the end of July 2022, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) attracted global opprobrium when it announced an auction for oil and gas leasing rights to thirty parcels of land across its territory. The available blocks, covering 800,000 square kilometers, span the entirety of the DRC from the Atlantic coast in the west, to the mountains bordering Rwanda in the east and the national parks bordering Zambia in the south. They cover carbon sequestering peatlands, rainforests, and mountain gorilla habitats. The auction was initially opened to large publicly traded and investor-owned oil and gas companies and, in August, the DRC allowed bids from carbon credit and cryptocurrency companies.
The DRC did not hold this auction to tangibly bring about oil and gas exploration and cause an environmental catastrophe. Rather, this announcement was part of an attempt to leverage increased climate investment globally and reshape the global climate change conversation ahead of the annual United Nations global climate change summit (COP27).
To date, the DRC has not made good faith efforts to develop its oil and gas industry. Previous research demonstrates that the Congolese hydrocarbon sector is best understood as a tool for corruption and rent extraction, not as a viable industry for international investment. The DRC’s political elite are often not in office long enough to benefit from oil and gas investments, which can take a decade to show a profit. Instead, state officials make money while they are in public office by selling time for meetings and talks about the sector. Indeed, setting a meeting with a minister involved in the hydrocarbon sector can cost companies anywhere between $5000 and $9000. Working with a civil servant to obtain a map or land survey data about the DRC’s oil and gas reserves costs an estimated $75,000.
From 2008 through 2022, even when oil prices were at their highest—in 2008 oil reached a price of $140 per barrel—the DRC did not authorize any new oil and gas exploration; it only authorized contracting. This indicates that developing the Congolese hydrocarbon sector is not a national priority and that new oil and gas exploration is unlikely. Brent crude oil traded between US $100 and US $111 per barrel in April and May 2022 when the Congolese government initially publicized the auction. At these prices, the DRC’s estimated 16 billion barrels of oil would have yielded the Congo a $650 billion windfall. however, major oil companies that have attempted to work in the DRC in the past—including Chevron, TotalEnergies, and DIGOil—all declined to participate in its July 2022 auction.
This auction is therefore best understood as an effort by the DRC to gain leverage vis-à-vis wealthier countries at COP27. This leverage is necessary to facilitate binding financial commitments from the global north. The potential inclusion of loss and damage on the COP27 agenda, the timing of the auction, and the DRC’s prominent role in climate meetings ahead of COP27 all point to the primary motivation of the DRC’s hydrocarbon auction: leverage in the international climate policy debate.
In international climate change policy, the concept of loss and damage refers to the idea that countries in the global north—the primary producers of climate-altering greenhouse gases—should pay countries in the global south for the damages they suffer from climate change. Poorer nations pushed for a dedicated loss and damage fund for countries most vulnerable to a changing climate in 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Wealthier countries agreed to discuss the idea but delayed creating the fund. Following COP26, sustained advocacy and research about the costs and impacts of climate change, as well as a surge in the number of billion dollar climate disasters across the globe in 2022, pushed the subject to the forefront of the 2022 conference agenda.
For developing countries, the cost of climate loss and damage is estimated to reach between $290 and $580 billion annually by 2030, and over $1 trillion a year by 2050. In the Congo, the increased attention to loss and damage ahead of COP27 was an opportunity to highlight the potential costs of its climate vulnerabilities. Of 181 countries, the DRC is ranked as the fifth smallest carbon emitter in the world while being the twelfth most climate change-vulnerable country and the fifth least prepared. The DRC’s oil and gas auction ahead of COP 27 drew international attention to the potential costs of not meeting Congolese needs and demands.
The timing of the auction indicates a calculated drive for leverage. The bidding opened six months ahead of COP27 and one month after the Congo announced that it would host pre-conference meetings. As the host, Congo facilitated a conversation about loss and damage that would inform the negotiation agenda in Sharm el-Sheikh. At the pre-conference meeting, Environment Minister Eve Bazaiba Masudi said “the focus of talks would be how the richest and most industrialised [sic] nations should take financial responsibility for their role in the climate crisis.”
The DRC coordinated with other African oil and gas producers prior to COP27 as well. In September 2022, members of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group met in Senegal to plan for the UN climate conference. “We must link the issue of environmental protection to the economy to achieve sustainable development,” said Eve Bazaiba Masudi, then Congolese minister to the 46-nation organization. This message was echoed by Senegal’s Prime Minister who stated the following: “Let’s be clear, we are in favor of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But we Africans cannot accept that our vital interests be ignored.”
The DRC has sought to increase its international leverage in more than just the fossil fuel sector. Since 2009, the DRC has participated in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) process. Adopted at COP19 in 2013, REDD+ is a mechanism for assessing the impact forests have on climate change prevention and limiting deforestation. It includes a system for financially rewarding rainforest nations that curb deforestation and carbon emissions. At COP26, donor countries committed US $500 million over five years to REDD+ investments in the DRC through the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). “With its forests, water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a genuine ‘Solution Country’ to the climate crisis,” Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said after signing the CAFI agreement.
Yet, international investment has been slow to reach the DRC, and investment is lower in the Congo River basin than in the Amazon and Southeast Asian basin countries. This pushed Congo to finalize long-running talks with Brazil and Indonesia, leading to the formation of a strategic alliance to coordinate their rainforest conservation efforts. The three countries are home to about fifty-two percent of remaining rainforest land. The alliance is nicknamed “the OPEC for rainforests.” It provides leverage for their proposals and supports the establishment of international systems for carbon credits, green finance, and restructuring poor nations’ debt related to debt-for-nature swaps.
COP27 was a demonstration of both the Congo’s and the global south’s leverage in the climate policy debate. Eve Bazaiba Masudi flew to Sharm El-Sheikh, and with the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN), led a successful effort to enshrine the REDD+ mechanism in the final COP27 implementation plan. Ms. Masudi worked with CfRN to ensure that poorer countries would be able to sell internationally vetted sovereign carbon credits to other countries and private companies—an effort the U.S opposed. This would make it more profitable for developing countries to protect their national ecosystems rather than exploiting them for logging, mineral and oil and gas extraction, or agriculture.
The DRC’s coordination initiatives on loss and damage ahead of the UN climate conference and its successful stewardship of REDD+ issues in Egypt set out a pathway for developing countries to gain leverage internationally by working multilaterally. On climate change policy, developing countries must work to develop binding climate change agendas in multilateral institutions including the African Union, the LDC Group, ASEAN, the G20, and the UN Security Council and others. Multilateralism is their best tool for increasing their leverage vis-à-vis richer countries, because it allows countries in the global south to act as a bloc when their interests in the climate crisis diverge from those of richer countries.
The Congo’s auction could set out a larger strategy for countries in the global South to replace the revenues and perverse incentives that fossil fuel development brings. At the dawn of a newly multipolar world, current distributions of global power necessitate a new multilateralism in the global south to balance the larger political and economic powers in the global north, address the climate crisis, and limit new fossil fuel excavation. It means that the countries which primarily contributed to climate change in the last century must pay some form of climate reparations in the current century to help guarantee a sustainable future for the planet.
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Dr. Zuri Linetsky is a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. He has lived and worked throughout Africa since 2014. His research focuses on China in Africa, international development, US grand strategy, and security cooperation.
Image Credit: Flickr, jbdodane. CC 2.0