Coral Reef Emergency and Copenhagen

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There are not one but two major problems that society confronts today in relation to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One is a “flow” problem : too much GHG flowing into the atmosphere due to human activities. If this is not stopped it will cause global warming and calamitous climate change. There is a parallel but distinct “stock” problem, namely that the current global “stock” of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) at 387 parts-per-million (ppm) concentration is a death sentence for the world’s coral reefs.

The loss of coral reefs began at around 320 ppm CO2, due to temperature induced coral bleaching, and is compounded by CO2 dissolution in sea water causing ocean acidification, which in turn hampers reef regeneration processes. Scientific concensus has emerged that atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to be “significantly below 350 ppm” for the long-term viability of coral reefs.

Reducing future GHG emissions flows may (or may not) save us from dangerous climate change, but it will certainly not stop the imminent loss of coral reefs. The real challenge, if the “stock” problem is to be addressed, is a significant permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The task for the world’s leaders in the run-up to Copenhagen is to address the real survival choice facing humanity when setting new targets for GHG concentrations. Accepting a stabilization level of 450 ppm CO2 as a basis for negotiations, or indeed any stabilization target above 350 ppm CO2, is actually a decision to make do without coral reefs. It is therefore also a decision to accept the consequences of their loss on ocean fisheries, and on the half billion people who depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihoods.

CO2 removals have become a survival need. Before Copenhagen, December 2009, explicit plans should be made for significant CO2 removals to address the current GHG “stock” problem and give corals a chance to survive. Accelerated carbon capture in natural ecosystems, especially tropical forests, is the safest way of removing large enough amounts of atmospheric carbon over a 5-10 year horizon. Leaders of all nations should focus on “sealing a deal“ at Copenhagen which pays for the capture of tropical forest carbon so that coral reefs are not lost to the Earth.

Coral Reef Emergency and Copenhagen

by Pavan Sukhdev

Study Leader – TEEB

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