Carbon Crisis Lethal For Coral Reefs, Say Top World Scientists

In a paper published in the December 14, 2007 issue of the prestigious journal Science, 17 eminent marine scientists reveal that world leaders face a race against time in preparing coral reefs and the coastal communities dependent upon them for the inevitable impact of rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere.

The paper brings together the two major threats facing coral reefs (global warming and ocean acidification) and suggests that carbon dioxide concentrations that exceed 450 ppm will cause coral reefs to deteriorate into non-coral communities.

Coral Reefs are Much More than a Pretty Picture

“The deterioration of coral reef ecosystems is a visually poignant reminder that climate change is not just an environmental issue but a development issue. Coral reefs are much more than a pretty picture, they’re an important asset. Developing countries need support not only to mitigate future deterioration of their coral reefs, but also to adapt to a sustainable use of the diminishing returns these reefs are likely to provide”, says Katherine Sierra, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

Economic Impacts of Coral Damage

109 countries have significant coral reef communities and 85% of these countries are experiencing damage to their coral reefs. Coral reefs are being threatened by both local scale factors such as overfishing and coastal pollution, and global factors such as global warming and ocean acidification.

Which of these are the most important depends to some extent on the location and context in which the coral reef currently exists. For example, coral reefs in some parts of Southeast Asia are under pressure by intense destructive fishing and coastal pollution. In this case, local factors dwarf the effects of global factors such as global warming and ocean acidification. In other parts of the world such as the Pacific, where pressures from local sources are lower, reefs are still declining at the rate of about 1-2% per year.

What can Developed Countries do to Assist Developing Countries?

Developed countries must drive down global emissions, spearhead the development of new technologies and sponsor the adaptation of developing countries. The latter is very important given that developing countries have often signed international treaties to pursue better management of their coastal resources, yet often have conflicting priorities and little financial resources or scientific capacity to act on these commitments. There is a responsibility for high carbon growth countries to make funds available to assist the most vulnerable coral reef states, who need support in adapting to climate change impacts while reducing local risks to reefs. At the local level, there needs to be immediate action to stop over-fishing, coastal pollution and unsustainable coastal development in the developing world.

New CRTR Program put Knowledge into the Hands of Decision-makers

The Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building for Management Program (CRTR) was conceived to shed light on the impact of climate change and other human stressors on coral reefs through coordinated research, and to put this knowledge into the hands of decision-makers, thus improving management options and policy interventions.

The immediate use of proven policy and management tools to address over-fishing, pollution and unsustainable coastal development is critical to saving coral reefs. Reefs that are managed better have a greater chance of bouncing back following a disturbance like a mass bleaching event.

A range of policy and management tools are available, including coastal zone management and co-management arrangements between governments and local communities, and have been refined through support from the International CRTR Program. No time should be lost in applying them more widely and effectively.

World Bank, 14 December 2007. Press release.

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