Global inequities between polluters and the polluted: climate change impacts on coral reefs

For many ecosystem services, it remains uncertain whether the impacts of climate change will be mostly negative or positive and how these changes will be geographically distributed. These unknowns hamper the identification of regional winners and losers, which can influence debate over climate policy. Here, we use coral reefs to explore the spatial variability of climate stress by modelling the ecological impacts of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, two important coral stressors associated with increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We then combine these results with national per capita emissions to quantify inequities arising from the distribution of cause (CO2 emissions) and effect (stress upon reefs) among coral reef countries. We find pollution and coral stress are spatially decoupled, creating substantial inequity of impacts as a function of emissions. We then consider the implications of such inequity for international climate policy. Targets for GHG reductions are likely to be tied to a country’s emissions. Yet within a given level of GHG emissions, our analysis reveals that some countries experience relatively high levels of impact and will likely experience greater financial cost in terms of lost ecosystem productivity and more extensive adaptation measures. We suggest countries so disadvantaged be given access to international adaptation funds proportionate with impacts to their ecosystem. We raise the idea that funds could be more equitably allocated by formally including a metric of equity within a vulnerability framework.

Wolff N. H., Donner S. D., Cao L., Iglesias-Prieto R., Sale P. F. & Mumby P. J., 2015. Global inequities between polluters and the polluted: climate change impacts on coral reefs. Global Change Biology 21(11):3982–3994. Article (subscription required).

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