Limits of the 'Country Solution' Concept in Climate Action: The Case of DRC

by Romain Ravet, Senior Country Representative, Democratic Republic of the Congo

As the #COP28 goes on, much of the talk in Kinshasa is about a “country solution” role for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in international climate governance, a concept offered by the World Bank, which has merits in making resource-rich countries more visible in climate governance, but also poses some questions.

The DRC Government’s declared intention going to Dubai was to leverage the conservation of its vast forest reserves and peatlands into financial compensation. This is one of the three pillars of the country solution idea for DRC, along with building a climate-intelligent approach to the country’s mining industry and developing hydroelectricity as the main conduit for energy supply. This article argues that this strategy poses two types of challenges.

First, whereas DRC forests do offer solutions for carbon absorption, these do not come close to balancing out emissions from industrialized countries. As biomass currently amounts for 94% of basic energy supply in the country, turning the population away from forest deforestation is also a massive part of building local resilience to climate change. However, DRC’s carbon sinks, which is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, are part of a global carbon credit market that allows heavy carbon-producing countries to capture natural resources and delay their own transition away from carbon with theoretical (and uneven) carbon compensation. The conditions under which DRC forests are being turned into carbon sinks also pose serious democratic problems as projects are often forced onto local populations. Besides, carbon-capture schemes are implemented through opaque bilateral deals with foreign countries, and they generate a typical rent-type of income that is very hard to trace and open to economic predation. Yet, under the country solution strategy, DRC is enticed to dedicate more of its forest resources to carbon-capture schemes and integrate deeper into international finance mechanisms to get financial compensation for it.

At a more conceptual level, the idea that countries like the DRC can bring solutions to a problem they did not create (DRC is responsible for only 1.45 percent of global emissions) repeats the dichotomy between “energy demand” in the industrialized North, and the “vast supply of resources” in the South. It is this duality that has made the cost of energy invisible to Northern consumers and led to the current disconnect between the pace of life in industrialized countries and the planet's resources.

Second, the other “solution” offered by DRC to the world is its role in powering a transition away from carbon-intensive energy. With over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt production, the second largest copper reserves and considerable deposits of lithium, rare earths and coltan, DRC resources are critical to the green transition. Meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreements will require a fourfold increase in global demand for these minerals between now and 2040. In 2022, the World Bank estimated that 17 trillion dollars must be invested to mine these critical resources for a successful transition; a significant part of this sum is already being invested in the DRC. Yet, it is not getting its fair share of the value created in the booming green economy. DRC minerals are essentially used to generate value outside the country and to provide access to energy in other countries, whereas the Congolese population remains among the most vulnerable to climate change and still struggle to access basic energy supply. As a response, the country solution idea promotes a concept of climate smart mining, which essentially focuses on mitigating the negative impact of mining. However, this also comes with limitations.

My colleagues and I at the @CarterCenter work every day with communities affected by the mining industry, and the story we document is one of staggering inequity between international mining companies’ colossal profits and Congolese communities who do not receive enough to offset the damage caused by extraction, let alone enough to invest in economic and social development. Far from the World Bank’s aspiration, current mining operations in the DRC aggravate socio-economic vulnerability, predation, corruption, and environmental degradation. Based on companies’ declarations to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, the mining sector generated around 15 billion dollars in 2020, i.e. the equivalent of the State budget for 2023. This figure is probably higher now, as the market value for cobalt and copper has been rising. However, based on our own revenue modelling studies, we estimate that mining operations undervalue their declarations by at least 25%, with some declaring only up to 20% of the real value. It is important to note that this only concerns the extraction, or upstream, phase of the mining industry, and that considerable value is added during processing (midstream) and end-use sale (downstream) phases, both phases taking place entirely outside DRC. Our work is also limited by the conditions of companies’ data disclosure, and the lack of segregated data at the level of each mine. In any case, at local level, companies only redistribute to communities a marginal part of the value they create. Based on our support to the development of “cahiers de charge”, we estimate that companies typically redistribute around 0.005 percent of the official value to communities. An additional 0.3 percent is supposed to be redistributed to communities via local endowment funds but the mechanisms are not fully set up yet. These figures come with a caveat that they are also based on companies’ own accounts and have not been seriously verified by any external actor. Companies are also liable for royalties and taxes, but these taxes are massively evaded, shrouded in opacity and are not redistributed to the population. Taxation barely features in the country solution strategy and climate smart-mining idea. Yet, taxation, and the redistribution of revenues, is not only a lever for the country to increase its share of the green energy benefits, but also a way to redefine the distribution of power in climate governance and reinforce the social contract that binds the State and its population. Better deals with international companies, a stronger tax base, and transparent redistribution of revenues can be leveraged into massive socio-economic development, resilience plans, but also open avenues for more accountability and public participation in the country’s governance.

Of course, internal factors also play a part in this picture. Public governance in the country remains a challenge, and institutions are rather weak. In this context, economic predation is widespread and the fight against corruption is far from being won. However, the basic problem is one of international distribution of wealth and capital and a global governance system hinged on maintaining status quo. This role for the DRC in a global industrial revolution is not new. Congolese rubber fueled the automobile age; its uranium launched the nuclear age. Each of these transitions was also highly asymmetrical, and the Congolese peoples’ rights, well-being, and resource ownership were systematically ignored. Each of these transitions brought us closer to the climate crisis.

To break this cycle, more is needed than channeling massive rent-type income in exchange for the DRC’s resources. The sort of solution that lies in the DRC is about breaking the cycle of extractivism that has marked international natural resources governance so far. This, in turn, implies recognizing the ownership of critical resources by populations of the “South” and being transparent about the true costs of energy production. The commodification of DRC natural resources is a limited approach to this, as it does not address the deep dysfunctions of the State, the country’s relative place in international climate governance and the deep drivers of the climate crisis. Whereas it has merits in making countries like the DRC visible in the climate change conversation, and in articulating a useful cross-policy perspective, the current use of the “country solution” concept appears limited and underplays the agency and power that lies in the DRC, not just to get compensation for its resources but to negotiate a new position in the market and political economy that underlies climate governance and the green transition.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top