Blog Fight For Our Reef

What does the latest IPCC report say about our Great Barrier Reef?

March 10, 2022

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report, and our beautiful Great Barrier Reef featured prominently.

Who or what is the IPCC?

The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a group of scientists from 195 countries who study human-caused global heating. They provide information to governments on the climate change threats and also the solutions.

What is this report saying about the Reef?

The report said that for coral reefs globally, bleaching conditions are projected to occur every five years from 2035, after which time the frequency would depend on how quickly we reined in emissions.

If emissions remained high, bleaching could occur every year from 2044. If we reduced emissions more quickly, it could take a further six years before those conditions were seen yearly on coral reefs

Unfortunately, the direct impacts of heat would likely be compounded by other climate change impacts. Cyclone intensity would increase, which would “greatly accelerate coral reef degradation,” the report said.

Achieving the 1.5 Paris target would be insufficient to prevent more mass bleaching events although it may reduce their occurrence, which is why it is so important for Australia to lead the charge towards limiting warming to this level. We have so much to lose after all.

What can be done to help?

For Australia, as custodians of the Reef, we have a responsibility to be leading on emissions reduction.The faster we cut emissions, the more climate damage to beautiful places like the Reef we can avoid.

But instead our federal government is taking slow and inadequate action, which will result in more harm to Australians, natural wonders like our Reef and huge economic damage. We need to drastically improve our ambition and become a global leader on emissions reduction. This will save lives and livelihoods, it will create jobs and it will ease the pressure on our Reef.

Is it too late for the Reef?

Definitely not. There are solutions on the table and with the right leadership and smart planning, this transition could be an economic boon for areas like northern and central Queensland. And we could protect the Reef too, safeguarding the jobs of more than 60,000 Queenslanders. But we have to face up to this issue now, not leave a disaster for others to deal with

If we go by 1.5C of warming, will it be too late for the Reef?

No, but it is a critical threshold for coral reefs – we should try to avoid reaching this level of warming if we can. Corals are sensitive to small changes in temperature and even a 1 degree change can be the difference between life and death for some corals in the Great Barrier Reef.

We know the Reef can recover if given reprieve from warming waters but every fraction of a degree of warming creates less chance for the Reef in the future.

The report says there will be more frequent bleaching at 1.5C of warming. The more frequently bleaching occurs the less time corals have to restore their health. If we do allow bleaching to occur annually the Great Barrier Reef will not survive this ongoing stress.

We have seen that the Reef can recover if given time between bleaching events, while also reducing local threats such as water pollution and poor fishing practices.

Why is 1.5C such an important threshold for the Reef?

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a collection of leading scientific and policy experts from around the world – predicted that at 1.5C of warming, the world would lose around 75% of its coral reefs. At 2C of warming, that figure rises to 99%. If we want future generations to enjoy and benefit from the Reef as we have, this is an issue we need to deal with now.

Recent research by Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University backs up this urgency. It found that only 2% of our Reef remains unbleached since 1998, and 80% of it has severely bleached since 2016.

Every fraction of a degree of warming will be crucial for the Reef in the next 10 years, it will shape its future. So we need to get on with taking the action it needs.

Won’t new technologies and tree planting remove the need for emissions reduction?

No, we need to look at adapting to a warmer world certainly but this should not be at the cost of emissions reductions. The best way to prevent catastrophic global heating and all the many disasters that come with it will be to stop taking coal and gas out of the ground and burning it. We could be a renewable energy powerhouse here in Australia if political leaders properly planned and executed clean renewable energy projects and stopped approving new coal and gas plants and relying on unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage to mitigate their emissions excesses.

The Reef is adapting to warmer temperatures – aren’t you worrying needlessly?

Temperatures are rising faster than the Reef can adapt to. This year, only well timed changes in the weather have prevented more bleaching on our Reef. Professor Terry Hughes’ recent research found that only 2% of our Reef remains unbleached since 1998, and 80% of it has been severely bleached since 2016.

We know the Reef can recover if given reprieve from warming waters but every fraction of a degree of warming creates less chance for the Reef in the future.