Copenhagen climate summit: the threat to coral reefs must be faced now

The likely demise of tropical coral reefs, and the human consequences, make the need for action urgent, says Pavan Sukhdev

There are not one but two major emissions problems that society confronts today.

One of these is well known: the risk of global warming and calamitous climate change due to our GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. But there is a second emissions problem as well. Current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, estimated at 387 parts-per-million (ppm) concentration, could cause extensive losses of tropical coral reefs worldwide.

This is because of ocean acidification due to excess CO2 dissolving in sea water, combined with coral bleaching due to temperature rise. This double-whammy prevents bleached corals from regenerating naturally. Some 20 per cent of coral reefs are already lost, and an equal number are considered seriously at risk.

But does this second problem really matter, beyond spoiling your long-term holiday plan to go diving in the Caribbean or in Asia?

Yes, for two reasons. First, tropical coral reefs are breeding grounds for sea fish, and provide food and livelihoods to an estimated 500 million people – one in every 12 people on Earth. Migrations inland from coasts and islands, due to food shortages caused by dying coral reef fisheries, are reported to have begun already in Indonesia and in the Philippines.

The second reason is that tropical coral reefs are home to one-fourth of all fish species in the oceans, innumerable corals and other species, and their loss would be the first major extinction event actually seen by mankind.

According to scientists, this could happen in the next 15 to 50 years. This is not about “future generations”. It is about us, and how well we shall handle being fugitives from our own conscience.

Pavan Sukhdev is on secondment from Deutsche Bank to the UN Environment Programme, leading the agency’s Green Economy Initiative, which includes The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study (TEEB).

Pavan Sukhdev,, 16 December 2009. Article.

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