Intensifying climate change remains the biggest threat to coral reefs around the world, with rising sea surface temperatures driving widespread bleaching events, according to the Climate Council’s latest report.
The report ‘Climate Change: A Deadly Threat to Coral Reefs’, shows worsening bleaching events are also placing tourism and global economies at risk, with the loss of coral reefs potentially costing an astounding $1 trillion.
Ecologist and Climate Councilor Professor Lesley Hughes said extensive and ongoing mass coral bleaching and mortality on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and now in 2017 should be a wakeup call.
“The extraordinary devastation being experienced on the Great Barrier Reef is due to the warming of our oceans, driven by the burning of coal, oil and gas. It would have been virtually impossible for this to have occurred without climate change,” she said.
“Repeated events such as those seen in 2016 and 2017 mean that the opportunities for corals to recover are very limited.”
The annual sea surface temperature in the Australian region shows a pronounced warming trend since the 1970s. Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM 2017c).
The report also recognized coral reefs as significant economic assets, with research showing that ongoing severe bleaching on the World-Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef alone could result in the catastrophic loss of more than 1 million visitors to the region annually – a figure equivalent to at least $1 billion in tourism spending and 10,000 jobs.
“This isn’t just an environmental issue. The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s greatest economic assets. It’s responsible for bringing in more than $7 billion each year to our economy, while also supporting the livelihoods of around 70,000 people.”
“Some commentators pit the environment against the economy. A healthy Great Barrier Reef underpins the tourism industry and the jobs that it supports.”
Key findings include:
- The longest global coral-bleaching event on record, ongoing since 2014, has led to widespread bleaching and mortality of reefs as pools of very warm water move around the globe.
- Loss of coral reefs potentially puts $1 trillion at risk globally.
- The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is a national economic asset worth $7 billion annually, supporting the livelihoods of around 70,000 Australians employed in sectors such as tourism.
- If severe bleaching continues, regions adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef risk losing more than 1 million visitors annually - equivalent to at least $1 billion in tourism spending and 10,000 jobs.
- Cooler waters as a result of Tropical Cyclone Debbie that hit North Queensland in late March 2017, may bring some temporary reprieve from further bleaching, however, there could be significant physical damage to corals as Cyclone Debbie tore through the reef.
- The commissioning of new coal mines such as that planned for the Galilee Basin, and the pursuit of expensive and polluting “clean coal” technology and other new fossil fuel infrastructure, is completely at odds with protecting the Great Barrier Reef.
Climate scientist and Climate Councilor, Professor Will Steffen said bleaching events are likely to become more frequent and more severe in Australia over the next two to three decades, sparking potentially devastating impacts for the health of the Reef.
“The only way to protect coral reefs in Australia and around the world is to stop greenhouse gas emissions. Australia is the caretaker of the Great Barrier Reef and we are lagging well behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to doing our part to effectively combat climate change,” he said.
“Emissions are flat-lining in China and declining in the United States and in other OECD countries. In comparison, Australia’s emissions continue to grow. We’ve got to stop and then reverse this trend and we’ve got to do it now. There is no time to lose.”
Professor Steffen said the combination of strong climate and energy policy from the Federal Government, along with swift support in the uptake of clean renewable energy and energy storage technologies would simultaneously deal with Australia’s emissions, while providing hope for one of the great wonders of the world. To download the full report, click here.