14 October 2021
Current Decade is Last Chance to Prevent Total Collapse of Coral Reefs: Status Report
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
story highlights

If coral reefs disappear, other marine realms will follow.

Many of the world’s reefs can recover if local pressures on reefs are reduced, and global threats posed by climate change addressed.

COP 26 and the upcoming Biodiversity Conference in Kunming (CBD COP 15) present crucial opportunities for leaders to act to reverse losses.

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) issued the first ‘Status of Coral Reefs of the World’ report since 2008, detailing the impacts of elevated ocean temperatures brought on by human activities.

GCRMN, a network of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), prepared the flagship report with partners including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Australia Institute of Marine Science. The 2020 report is the sixth edition, and the first based on quantitative analysis of a global dataset, which covers the years 1978-2019.

More frequent bleaching events prevent corals from recovering between disturbances.

The authors note that:

  • Coral reefs occur in over 100 countries and territories and provide habitat for close to 30% of all known marine species. Therefore, if coral reefs disappear, other marine realms will follow.
  • Coral reefs are vulnerable to pressures from climate change and ocean acidification, land-based pollution, marine pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices.
  • The biggest threat to reefs is climate change and related increases in sea surface temperature. Unless deep reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions take place by mid-century, coral reefs could decline by 70-90% or be lost almost completely.
  • Many of the world’s coral reefs can recover if local pressures on reefs are reduced, and global threats posed by climate change addressed.

The report explains that the greatest disturbance to coral reefs is bleaching. The first mass global coral bleaching event occurred in 1998, killing 8% of the world’s coral, and the events have become more frequent. This prevents corals from recovering between disturbances, and bleaching events have killed 14% of the world’s coral since 2009.

In a foreword to the report, Prince Albert II of Monaco notes the recovery capacity of coral reefs. He calls for the report to be used as a basis for negotiations on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and 2030 goals, and calls on the international community to pursue ambitious by realistic targets founded on science.

A foreword by Penelope Wensley, Chair of the Australian Institute of Marine Science Council, adds that the report is also timely input for the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP 26), regarding the “condition of one of Earth’s most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change.”

She also recalls that since the international community adopted Agenda 21 in 1992 identifying coral reefs as a high priority for protection, the need for action has moved from “high priority” to “urgent” to “critical”. Reefs are at a crisis point, linked to the impacts of our changing climate. She stresses that according to some scientists, by 2070 coral reefs could be gone altogether. The coming decade, she said, likely offers the last change for policymakers to prevent this outcome.

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said COP 26 and the upcoming Biodiversity Conference in Kunming are crucial opportunities for leaders to act to reverse losses: “We must not leave future generations to inherit a world without coral.” 

The UN also notes that 2021 marks the beginning of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. [UNEP landing page] [GCRMN landing page] [Executive Summary] [UNEP press release]

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