Policymakers Have Last Chance to Save Coral Reefs From Global Collapse, Warn Scientists

The scientists lay out what needs to be done in this decade.

Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef during a mass bleaching event in 2017.

Brett Monroe Garner / Getty Images

Scientists had a dire warning at the International Coral Reef Symposium: this decade is a make or break for coral reefs. According to the paper presented at the symposium, this decade is the last chance for policymakers on all tiers to prevent coral reefs “from heading towards world-wide collapse.”

Models show that up to 30% of coral reefs will persist through this century if, and only if, we limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). Their future hangs in the balance. Reefs are hugely important to humans and many other creatures, yet globally, they are facing immense threats due to human activity. 

“From a coral reef perspective, we go from 30% of reefs surviving to only a few percent surviving if we don’t act now,” said Andréa Grottoli, president of the International Coral Reef Society and a contributing author of the paper. “We are already faced with a grand challenge in trying to restore the reefs. Once we do eventually reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the planet is no longer warming at an accelerated rate, trying to restore from just a few percent is much more difficult.”

The paper outlines how the coming year and decade likely offer our last opportunity to work synergistically to avoid a global collapse of reef systems and instead move towards a slow but steady recovery. As the paper states, this is a daunting but doable proposition. 

Recovery requires independent pillars of action

Scientists identified the three interdependent pillars of action which will allow reefs to move towards recovery:

  • A reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increase of carbon sequestration (ideally through nature-based solutions).
  • Increased local protection and improved management for existing coral reefs. 
  • Investment in restoration science and active ecosystem restoration.

It is important to recognize the interconnectedness of coral reef protection and restoration, and the more general climate crisis as a whole. And yet also tackle other threats, such as overfishing and marine pollution. 

New commitments are required

This paper has three asks for the international policy community:

The first of these asks is that the international community establish realistic yet ambitious commitments to halt climate change and coral reef biodiversity losses. We are at an inflection point, and the time for action is now. The paper urges commitments and the development of mechanisms for their implementation through COP26 and other vital frameworks. 

The second ask is for cohesive action—the promotion of coordinated actions and a joined-up approach. Effective action for coral reefs at local and national levels is often hindered by fragmentation. All efforts on climate, local conditions, and coral reef restoration must be cohesive across all sectors and levels of governance. A holistic approach must be taken. 

Thirdly, the paper asks that policymakers do what they can to drive innovation, and develop new approaches where necessary. Though the paper highlights tools and approaches which are currently effective in reef conservation and restoration, such as fisheries management, water quality control, monitoring and measurement, capacity building, etc., it also highlights the importance of finding new technologies to ensure that reef ecosystems will continue to support human health, wellbeing, and employment. 

For each of these three "asks," the paper outlines a number of actions that could be taken now, and in the next decade. 

The document provides the latest scientific evidence regarding coral reef ecosystems and provides signposts to help negotiators identify opportunities to build coherence across policy areas—something that is vital to stimulate and prioritize effective actions that are needed to conserve and rebuild our coral reefs. It could focus efforts from policy-makers and encourage people to work together in energetic and holistic ways. 

New goals and targets will have enormous importance for the future of coral reefs. But will policy-makers answer the call? As citizens of this planet, we all have voices that we can use. We can all play a role in calling for commitments, and holding governments and policy-makers to account. 

But perhaps we can also, ourselves, play a role in protecting our coral reefs. As John D. Liu stated in our recent Q&A, we could create and aid “Ecosystem Restoration Camps that engage those who want to scuba dive to join in mass efforts to restore coral reefs. Restoring Coral Reefs is a much more purposeful use of scuba diving than just swimming around and looking at fish.” Perhaps we can all have a role to play, and can all make new commitments to save and restore coral reefs around the world. 

Coral reefs cover only around 0.1% of oceans globally, yet are home to around a third of all known marine species. They generate income for communities and nations and protect coasts from storm flooding. Without reefs, the negative effects would be catastrophic. We need to act before it is too late. 

View Article Sources
  1. Knowlton, Nancy, et al. "Rebuilding Coral Reefs." International Coral Reef Society, 2021.