Climate change report signals bad news for coral reefs

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Great Belize Television: News 5/Channel5, Belize, Central America

Holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees could mean the difference between the survival of the world's coral reefs or their death, a recent report from the United Nations' main scientific body warned. News Five’s Andrea Polanco in Belize drew from Australia’s experience when she caught up with that country’s environment minister last month at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

The latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world has about a dozen years to get climate change under control and that global warming must be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid disastrous environmental impacts. Even half a degree higher will significantly worsen the risks of floods, heatwaves, wildfires and droughts, increasing poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Among the many specifics the report addresses is large-scale coral bleaching. In 2016 and 2017, for example, marine heatwaves caused by climate change resulted in mass bleaching that killed significant coral in the Great Barrier Reef.

“What we have seen over the last few years is two consecutive years of mass coral bleaching directly as a result of climate change," said Leeanne Enoch, Australia's Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef. "And, in fact, I think all coral systems across the world have been challenged by these very issues. Climate change remains the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef." 

In Belize, warmer sea temperatures and high levels of ocean acidity have been recorded in the past few years. The Meso-American Reef Report Card showed that in 2015-2016, 21 percent of corals in Belize's Barrier Reef had been bleached. In 2017, marine researchers became concerned about Belize's conch fisheries.

"Last year, we had heating – like we’re having a climate change bleaching year. It was really bad. The water was very hot. We actually had conch burrowing or going outside into deeper water on the walls of the reef," said Amanda Acosta, Executive Director of the Belize Audubon Society.

There may be even more threats to Belize’s marine environment. The IPCC report released Oct. 8 found that coral reefs were likely to decline between 70 and 90 percent if the global temperature increases by 1.5 degrees. If global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius, more than 99 percent of coral reefs are projected to die. Avoiding temperature rise above 2 degress requires significant and immediate action, the report states. Minister Enoch says Australia has been undertaking ambitious targets to reduce the pressures on the Great Barrier Reef, which supports 60,000 jobs and provides about $6 billion Australian dollars to the country's economy.

“We have targets with regards to emissions. We have zero net emissions by 2050. We have targets with renewables – 50 percent renewable by 2030," Enoch said. "We are working towards taking more cars that use fossil fuels off the road; looking at electric vehicles in particular. Our own government fleet of 10,000 vehicles is being transitioned into electric vehicles to reduce the amount of fossil fuel that is being used.”

They're targets Enoch says Australia is already on track to reach.

"We are initiating new programs, such as a $500 million land restoration fund, which is about keeping trees in the ground and supporting local people to build industries to keep trees in the ground," the minister said. "Those kinds of programs all together, all of these different layers of effort, are all being stitched together in order to support us in meeting our targets but ultimately us being able to reduce our impact on climate change.”

According to the IPCC's assessment, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees Celsius would likely be the difference between the survival of some Great Barrier Reef coral and its complete decline. Minister Enoch says that like Australia, Belize needs to find ways to transition to a green economy in order to tackle the impacts of climate change on its barrier reef. 

“The word for all of us is transition; it is to find a way to transition into cleaner energy and clean-energy industries and economies," Enoch said. "There are lots of jobs and lots of economic opportunities in this transition into a greener economy. So, I would encourage anyone right across the world to really start looking at that particular aspect and that challenge.”

This story was supported by the 2018 Climate Change Media Partnership, a collaboration between Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Foundation.