Zambia’s Lower Zambezi becomes world’s first carbon neutral national park

Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Malee Oot

The Lower Zambezi National Park – one of Zambia’s premier safari destinations – now has another distinction – the world’s first carbon neutral national park.
The announcement makes the Zambian park a leader in sustainable tourism not only in Africa, but around the world, and comes on the heels of the global climate agreement reached at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December.
In the 4,092-square kilometer Lower Zambezi National Park, achieving carbon neutrality was the result of a coordinated effort on the part of both private-sector concessionaires and park management, including Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ). Lodges, safari camps, and other tourism-based operators in the park first worked to cut greenhouse gas emissions wherever possible – implementing more sustainable solutions like eco-charcoal or transitioning to the use of renewables. All unavoidable emissions associated with the protected area – including those generated by tourism activities, management operations, and wildlife conservation – were all offset with the purchase of Verified Carbon Units (VCUs) from the Lower Zambezi REDD + Project, a USAID-supported initiative funded by the Community Forests Program (CFP) and managed by BioCarbon Partners, a social enterprise specializing in managing forest-based carbon offset programs in Africa.
In total, 13 different lodges participated in the Lower Zambezi’s carbon neutrality scheme – six of which are not even technically located inside the national park – but are based in the adjacent Chiawa Game Management Area. Safari operators in the Lower Zambezi National Park also consciously went above and beyond – offsetting not only emissions generated by tourism-related facilities in the remote protected area but also those created by day-to-day activities at their main offices in Lusaka.
For 2015, concessionaires based in the Lower Zambezi National Park committed to a ‘copper’ level of carbon neutrality — which involves offsetting emissions generated by lodges, offices and conservation operations inside the protected area. After establishing baseline emission data, operators in the national park have also agreed to annual assessments of their carbon footprints – and are striving to continue to improve each year.  Higher carbon neutrality certifications – like the silver, gold, or platinum levels – also include offsetting emissions associated with travel to the Lower Zambezi National Park.
Part of the Lower-Zambezi-Mana Pools Transfrontier Protected Area, which includes Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe — a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the largest elephant populations in the Africa –the Lower Zambezi ecosystem provides critical habitat for some of the planet’s most vulnerable species.  In choosing to first reduce and then offset greenhouse gas emissions, private-sector operators in the Lower Zambezi have not only acted to mitigate the climate-related impacts of tourism in the national but have also acted to preserve the globally vital ecosystem through electing to purchase carbon offsets from the Lower Zambezi REDD + Project.
Uniquely positioned to support greenhouse gas mitigation, protected area conservation, and livelihood development, the Lower Zambezi REDD + project is the first of its kind in Zambia. The project relies on the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) methodology to calculate stored carbon stocks and net emissions – and has been certified to the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity (CCB) standards, becoming the first REDD+ project in Africa to achieve triple gold validation – and is expected to prevent the release of 9.6 MtCO₂ equivalents over its 30-year lifespan.
Additionally, the Lower Zambezi REDD + project site – which includes the nearly 40,000 Rufunsa Conservancy, located in the Lusaka Province and an adjacent urban-to-rural transition area currently home to approximately 8,300 people — provides several simultaneous benefits, going beyond merely mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. The conservancy, while one of the few remaining areas of intact Miombo woodland in the Lusaka Province, is also highly vulnerable to deforestation – especially as a result of growing populations and the booming regional charcoal trade – and the conservancy’s proximity to the Great East Road, a major artery connecting Zambia’s capital with locations in Mozambique and Malawi.
The preservation of the Rufunsa Conservancy’s forest habitat also provides an invaluable benefit to conservation efforts in the Lower Zambezi – the conservancy, which is located along the national park’s eastern border, also provides a strategic 60-kilometer buffer zone along the park’s boundary, shielding the Lower Zambezi from encroaching human settlements.
Tourism is the largest service sector industry on the planet – and is an energy intensive business – responsible for generating nearly 5 percent global CO₂ emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). In Zambia, tourism accounted for about 5.3 percent of the country’s GDP and provided an estimated 30,000 jobs in 2015, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The private-sector led carbon neutrality initiative in the Lower Zambezi – and the purchase of carbon offsets from the Lower Zambezi REDD + project – not only demonstrates the potential for coupling the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions with biodiversity conservation but also highlights the opportunity for tourism operators to take the lead in protecting the vulnerable ecosystems their industry is so heavily dependent upon.  

Malee is a freelance writer with a background in environmental management. She has lived in Kenya, Nepal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom and is currently based in Washington, DC.
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