Fossil fuel threats remain to protected areas and priority ecosystems


All eyes will be on energy and industry, just transition, and Indigenous peoples on December 5th at COP28 as the program makes a thematic shift. Exploring all three of these topics, a new study released at a UN press conference at COP yesterday spotlights fossil fuel expansion threats to protected areas around the globe, building on stark findings released a few weeks ago at the Summit of the Three Basins in Brazzaville.

The reports both come at a critical moment of increased political and international policy momentum for a complete phase-out of fossil fuel production worldwide, and call for a global moratorium on all fossil fuel development and expansion in the world’s protected areas, as well as some of the most important remaining high integrity, biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.

Energy Transition Threats: Nickel Mining and Indonesian Forest Impacts
As the energy transition ramps up, it is vital that it doesn’t cause more problems than it is designed to solve. Critical minerals are a cornerstone of the energy transition away from fossil fuels and towards zero emissions electric vehicles, but if minerals such as nickel are sourced by causing deforestation and degradation in tropical forests, it compromises the ability for nature to serve as a climate solution, exacerbating the biodiversity crisis and harming the health and livelihoods of nearby Indigenous and local communities.

Indonesia is ground zero for this concern. According to Auriga Nusantara, in Indonesia, half of all nickel concessions (primarily for EV’s) overlap with natural forests and a fivefold risk of deforestation/degradation is possible if nickel mining permits expand to cover the full deposit area in that country. The deforestation caused by nickel mining is akin to a moonscape and is leading to biodiversity depletion, the loss of the local people’s livelihoods, impacts on fisheries, and on the health of local communities and civil society organizations in the region are calling for deforestation free mining.

Globally, at least 918 protected areas have ongoing or planned fossil fuel extraction projects within their boundaries, with a total of 2337 active or proposed oil, gas, and coal extraction ventures within legally protected areas. At least 50.8 Gt of potential CO2 emissions from oil, gas, and coal reserves are on track to be extracted from projects within protected areas over their lifetimes, according to industry projections. This is more than three times the annual emissions from the US and China combined

The protected areas report launched on December 3rd reveals that in the three largest pantropical forest basins, 300,000 km2 or 14% of the area of PAs overlap with oil and gas blocks. It also features a number of case study areas, including Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon, where oil and gas blocks overlap with more than 56% of the extent and 84% of Indigenous Territories in the park. Expansion is widely opposed by Indigenous peoples who live within the park boundaries and are already facing pollution from seismic testing.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, has nearly 85% of its extent overlapped by oil and gas blocks and Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda has nearly half of its extent overlapping with oil and gas concessions and active drill pads under construction today which are imminently threatening the waters of Lake Albert and the Upper Nile river.

In Southeast Asia, 361 national parks are being encroached upon by fossil fuels — representing over 20% the extent of protected areas. Cambodia is a striking example as nearly 72% of the domain under protected areas overlaps with oil and gas blocks. Malaysia is accelerating its fossil fuel expansion plans and marine protected area Tun Mustapha, recently auctioned in 2023 has 100% overlap with oil and gas blocks — endangering the mangroves, coral, and coastline in the region.

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