Coral climate crunch could displace millions

Posted: 13 May 2009

If the world does not take effective action on climate change, coral reefs will disappear from the Coral Triangle by the end of the century, the ability of the region's coastal environments to feed people will decline by 80 per cent, and the livelihoods of around 100 million people will have been lost or severely impacted.

But effective global action on climate change and regional attention to problems of over-fishing and pollution would prevent catastrophe, according to a WWF-commissioned environmental, economic and social study of possible scenarios outlined to the World Oceans Conference in Indonesia.

Bleached corals, Fiji
Bleached corals, Fiji
Corals become "bleached" when water temperatures rise too high and are sustained for too long. Fiji. Photo © Cat HOLLOWAY / WWF-Canon
The report shows that climate change will seriously threaten the delicate ecosystem of the Coral Triangle, affecting the coasts, reefs and seas of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

The region, which covers just one per cent of the earth's surface, includes 30 per cent of the world's coral reefs, 76 per cent of its reef building coral species and more than 35 per cent of its coral reef fish species, as well as providing vital spawning grounds for other economically important fish such as tuna.

Around 100 million people rely on the area for their livelihoods. However, it is predicted that due to climate change and overfishing, the capacity of the region's coastal environments to feed people will decline by 80 per cent.

But effective global action on climate change and regional attention to problems of over-fishing and pollution would prevent catastrophe, according to a WWF-commissioned environmental, economic and social study of possible scenarios outlined to the World Oceans Conference.

Emily Lewis-Brown, Marine Climate Change Officer at WWF-UK says: "The effects of climate change on the oceans are global and only strong and urgent action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions can hope to mitigate this threat."

Fisher with reef fish catch, Fiji
Fisher with reef fish catch, Fiji
Fisher with reef fish catch, Fiji. Photo © Cat HOLLOWAY / WWF-Canon
"WWF calls on world leaders to agree a strong and fair Global Climate Deal at the UN Climate Conference at Copenhagen in December to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. This deal also needs to provide the necessary support and funding to enable the countries of the Coral Triangle to strengthen the management of their natural resources and protect the lives and livelihoods of their people."

The Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystems, People and Societies at Risk, which assessed more than 300 published scientific studies, presents two possible scenarios for the future of the world's richest marine environment.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland, who led the study, explains:

"In one world scenario, we continue along our current climate trajectory and do little to protect coastal environments from the onslaught of local threats. In this world, people see the biological treasures of the Coral Triangle destroyed over the course of the century by rapid increases in ocean temperature, acidity and sea level, while the resilience of coastal environments also deteriorates under faltering coastal management. Poverty increases, food security plummets, economies suffer and coastal people migrate increasingly to urban areas."

However the report also shows there is an opportunity to avoid a worst-case scenario in the region and instead build a resilient and robust Coral Triangle in which economic growth, food security and natural environments are maintained, if major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are backed up by international investment in strengthening the region's natural environments.

Even in the best case scenario, communities are likely to face loss of coral, sea level rises, increased storm activity, severe droughts and reduced food availability from coastal fisheries. A key difference, however, is that, with strong mitigation and adaptation policies in place communities should remain reasonably intact and more resilient in the face of these hardships.

Effective management of coastal resources is needed and solutions include locally-managed regional networks of marine protected areas, protection of mangroves and seagrass beds and management of local fisheries.

Fishermen with dried fish, Banda Islands, Indonesia
Fishermen with dried fish, Banda Islands, Indonesia
Fishermen with dried fish, Banda Islands, Indonesia. Photo © Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
"The relationship between people and the sea in the Coral Triangle has come under extreme threat from rapid climate change and escalating local and regional environmental pressures," said WWF International Director General James Leape. "These pressures are increasing at such an alarming rate that urgent regional and international action must now be taken to avoid an ecological and human catastrophe.

"World leaders must support Coral Triangle countries in their efforts to protect their most vulnerable communities from rising sea levels and loss of food and livelihoods by helping them to strengthen management of their marine resources and by forging a strong agreement on greenhouse gas reductions at the UN Climate Conference at Copenhagen in December this year."

Leaders of six Coral Triangle countries promised to take action to safeguard the world's richest marine resource and some 100 million people depending on it.

The announcement followed a recent WWF report which found that without action on climate change, coral reefs will disappear from the Coral Triangle by the end of the century, the ability of the region's coastal environments to feed people will decline by 80 per cent, and the livelihoods of around 120 million people will have been lost or severely impacted.