A ghostly pallor is overtaking the world’s coral reefs. This results when heat-stressed corals expel the algae they rely on for food - and which are responsiblefor their bright and beautiful hues. Death often follows.
Reefs have long been under threat from destructive fishing practices, runoff, coralmining, reckless tourism and coastal development. Now, scientists say, globalwarming is accelerating the destruction.
One of the worst episodes of coral bleaching began last spring, and affected reefsin virtually all the world’s tropical waters.
“In Panama, the bleaching was the most graphic I’ve ever seen,” said NancyKnowlton, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Institution. “Everything was justbone white.”
Preliminary assessments suggest that the impact will be worst since the only otherknown global-scale bleaching event, in 1998 and 1999, when more than 10 percentof the world’s shallow-water corals died.
Nearly three-quarters of the planet’s reefs are at risk of serious degradation,according to the World Resources Institute. Another analysis, by the Global CoralReef Monitoring Network, found that as much as one-fifth of the reefs have beendegraded beyond recognition or lost.
By midcentury, virtually all reefs will be at risk, scientists fear, not just from local threats or globalwarming, but from an increasingly acidified ocean. Much of the carbon dioxide released to theatmosphere ends up in the oceans, where it forms a weak acid, lowering the pH level of the seas.
A new study offers some of the strongest evidence linking carbon emissions to reef damage. Thestudy examined corals off the coast of Papua New Guinea located near undersea seeps of carbondioxide. The results showed that as acidity rose, coral resilience plunged.
“We must urgently transition to a low-CO2-emissions future or we face the risk of profound losses ofcoral ecosystems,” said Katharina Fabricius, a reef ecologist with the Australian Institute of MarineScience.
The prospects for such a low-carbon transition in the near term seem remote, however. TheInternational Energy Agency says the world’s carbon dioxide emissions reached a record 27.8 billionmetric tons last year.
Coral reefs provide a crucial source of protein for an estimated 500 million people, protectshorelines from tsunamis and storms, and attract tourists that sustain economies.
Many scientists say that confronting local perils such as overfishing is more important than ever. “Ifwe keep local threats low, coral reefs will be able to get over the climate hump,” said Lauretta Burke,a reef biologist.
Delegates from 183 countries began negotiations at the UN preparatory climate change conference in Bonn this week and will spend the next 11 days working towards a draft text they hope will serve as the basis for negotiations at the annual UN Climate Summit in Durban later this year.
BusinessGreen offers an overview of the long-running talks and highlights the few remaining causes for optimism, as well as the rather more compelling reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects of a deal.
Spirit of co-operation
Talks in Cancun last year were considered a relative success by many of those involved – all 192 nations signed up to the agreement at the end of the talks, and important progress was made on preventing deforestation. Some progress was also made on emissions. If negotiators can recapture the momentum and spirit of constructive engagement that characterised the Cancun talks, then there is hope they can make progress on key issues such as climate funding, carbon trading, forest protection and how to measure emissions reductions.
Recent estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that emissions from energy generation in 2010 were the highest in history. Meanwhile, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reached record levels during May. Although this may sound like scant cause for optimism, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres urged negotiators to be spurred on by the news. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that all efforts are mobilised towards living up to this commitment,” she said in her press conference opening the talks.
Small island states
Small island states such as the Maldives have become major players at the UN talks. Images of whole nations being swallowed by rising seas have lodged in the public consciousness and given them an increasingly powerful negotiating platform. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents 43 countries, told Reuters it could consider pledges on emissions cuts made voluntarily by rich nations if they were made into legally binding targets. The move is significant because until now AOSIS and other developing nations have been steadfast in their demands for greater cuts in emissions by richer nations.
UK sets example to other nations
The UK recently announced an ambitious target that would bring its greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025. The move, coupled with similarly ambitious decarbonisation plans from industrialised nations such as Germany, Norway and Japan, could help set an example to other rich nations and break the deadlock on climate action caused by fears of hampering economies still recovering from the global financial crisis.
It has long been presumed by many world leaders that, without nuclear power, renewables have no hope of meeting global energy demand. But a report from the IPCC in May found that renewables could meet nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy demands by 2050. Meanwhile, Germany has become the largest nation to date to pledge itself to a nuclear-free future in the wake of the Fukushima crisis in Japan.
Saying ‘no’ to Kyoto
It seems unlikely the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan will sign up to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. All have made it clear in the run-up to the Durban negotiations that they will not endorse a second commitment period for the oft-criticised treaty. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres admitted on 6 June that negotiations have run out of time to deliver a binding successor to Kyoto before the present treaty ends in 2012. With developing nations insisting Kyoto must be extended, the talks are at a deadlock and work to agree a replacement to Kyoto that is acceptable to all sides is struggling to move forward.
EU support for Kyoto wanes
The EU delegation at Bonn has long been a cheerleader for Kyoto, and EU support for a follow-on agreement was considered a given by some developing countries. But on 6 June, EU chief negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger said the region would not unconditionally support an extension of Kyoto without legally binding emissions goals on all major emitters, including emerging economies such as India and China.
Climate aid commitments in doubt
During the Copenhagen conference, rich countries agreed to provide $30bn of ‘fast-start’ financing during 2010-2012 and $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing countries fight climate change. Industrialised nations insist they are making good progress on both these fronts. Butresearch by the World Resources Institute shows that only around $12bn of the fast-start money has actually been budgeted for by countries, and in some cases as little as 30 per cent has been delivered. A transitional committee working on the design of the promised $100bn a year Green Climate Fund met in April with the aim of extracting the money, but action needs to happen faster if developing nations are to trust funding commitments.
World events hamper progress
The political situation in major economies is not conducive to significant progress on climate negotiations because of elections and possible leadership changes in the next two years in Germany, the US and France, among others. Climate action is rarely a vote winner in times of economic hardship, and Barack Obama in particular has toned down his green rhetoric in the run-up to a re-election bid. Global reaction to the Fukushima crisis, and in particular Germany’s decision to halt its nuclear power programme, threatens to derail emissions reduction plans, as many claim even the most ambitious renewable plans will struggle to meet short-term demand for power.
‘Process’ threatens to dominate talks
Reports have again emerged that meetings are being postponed in Bonn as negotiators try, and fail, to agree on agendas. The news will prompt memories of Copenhagen, where a lack of organisation meant valuable negotiating time was swallowed up with disagreements over processes. This resulted in mutual recriminations by developed and developing countries, a series of negative briefings to the press, and a resulting breakdown in trust. Cancun was hailed as having overcome many of the process issues, but with reports emerging of grumbling among some delegates about the failure of the South African government to organise meetings ahead of Durban, there are concerns about the organisation of the negotiations.
- Bonn Climate Change Talks: Developing Countries Fight With Rich Nations In Stalled Negotiations (huffingtonpost.com)
- Climate Talks Face Time Crunch as Kyoto Deadline Looms (chimalaya.org)
- Island States Hint at Climate Talks Compromise (scientificamerican.com)
- U.N.: Climate Talks Will Miss Kyoto Deadline (huffingtonpost.com)
- U.N. Says Climate Talks Will Miss Kyoto Deadline (scientificamerican.com)
- Canada Confirms It Will Reject New Kyoto Protocol (scientificamerican.com)
- Bonn climate talks: Developing nations question funding commitment (guardian.co.uk)
- Expiry of emissions pact in 2012 bedevils talks (sfgate.com)
- Ailing UN climate talks jolted by record surge in greenhouse gases (guardian.co.uk)
- Poor countries say rich evade new climate pledges (sfgate.com)
Representatives from ZSL’s Conservation and Living Collections teams on Thursday participated in the launch of the Reefs at Risk Revisited report launch.
In the 10 years since the first Reefs at Risk analysis, threats have increased by 30 percent. This includes recent impacts from climate change which causes rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching.
The most immediate and direct threats arise from local sources, which currently threaten more than 60 percent of reefs (about 150,000 sq km of reefs). Local threats include overfishing, destructive fishing, coastal development and pollution.
Unless steps are taken to reduce local pressure and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, the percent of threatened reefs will increase to more than 90% by 2030 and to nearly all reefs by 2050.
The report identifies 27 nations most vulnerable to coral reef degradation and loss in the world (of 108 reef countries assessed). The nine coun¬tries most vulnerable to the effects of coral reef degradation, due to high dependence on coral reefs and low adaptive capacity, are: Haiti, Grenada, Philippines, Comoros, Vanuatu, Tanzania, Kiribati, Fiji, and Indonesia.
The report makes 60 recommendations for action. ZSL’s coral reef conservation efforts respond to many of these, including supporting and implementing effective marine protected areas (in Chagos and the Philippines through Project Seahorse), building conservation and management capacity in coral reef nations (EDGE Corals, Project Seahorse), supporting the most vulnerable countries (e.g. Philippines through Project Seahorse) and influencing policy (Climate Change programme; GLOBE Action Plan for Coral Reefs).
The report was led by the World Resources Institute, along with the Nature Conservancy, the WorldFish Center, ICRAN, UNEP-WCMC, and GCRMN. One of the report’s authors, Dr Allison Perry, is a former member of the Project Seahorse team.
The full report can be downloaded at http://pdf.wri.org/reefs_at_risk_revisited.pdf