UNESCO has sounded the alarm over the impact of climate change on World Heritage-listed coral reefs, including our own Great Barrier Reef, in a new report that stresses the importance of delivering on the Paris Agreement.
This comes hard on the heels of a warning issued by UN Secretary General António Guterres on 10 September: “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.
The UNESCO report, an update to the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Coral Reefs, finds that if the world limited global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperature, and achieved the target of 1.5°C, then the worst impacts of climate change on these global treasures could be avoided.
Dr Scott Heron, of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program and lead author of the report, said: “The Great Barrier Reef and all other World Heritage-listed coral reefs are predicted to avoid the devastating bleaching and mortality from annual severe heat stress if Australia and the rest of the world take immediate and decisive action on climate change.
“However, four World Heritage-listed coral reefs are still predicted to experience twice-per-decade severe bleaching stress, even under the Paris Agreement scenario. This would lead to impacts not only on the ecosystems but also on the communities and industries that depend upon the goods and services provided by healthy vibrant reefs.
“This updated assessment shows how urgent it is for Australia and the world to stabilise carbon emissions by the end of next year, and then continue to reduce emissions. This is essential to avoid the worst impacts of global warming on coral reefs,” Dr Heron said.
Imogen Zethoven, Great Barrier Reef campaign director at the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) said: “The report offers some hope for most World Heritage-listed coral reefs, provided that Australia and other countries rapidly shift away from coal and other fossil fuels.
“Local management efforts are essential to enhance reef resilience, but they cannot offset the impacts of climate disturbances. Climate change, mainly driven by mining and burning coal, is the biggest threat to the Reef but the government has walked away from dealing with it.
“Since Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, Australia’s carbon pollution levels have been on the rise.
“Prime Minister Morrison has said we will achieve our Paris commitments “in a canter”, however, even if this statement were correct, which it is not, our commitments are not in line with achieving the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal of 1.5°C.
“Our current policies, if matched by the rest of the world, would lead to a warming of 3 – 4°C, which would kill the Great Barrier Reef, evaporating the 64,000 jobs that depend upon it, and devastate all the world’s coral reefs,” Ms Zethoven said.
To arrange interviews with Dr Scott Heron, NOAA Coral Watch Program, contact:
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To arrange interviews with Imogen Zethoven, AMCS GBR Campaign Director, contact:
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 Cocos Island National Park (Costa Rica); Galapagos Islands (Ecuador); Phoenix Islands Protected Area (Kiribati); Coiba National Park (Panama).