Great Barrier Reef’s decline should be a wake-up call

View from airplane over Great Barrier Reef where tidal channel separates Hardy and Hook Reef

Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a draft decision recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Sadly, this should not be a surprise. Scientific evidence clearly shows that the reef, which is the largest living structure and continuous coral reef system on Earth, is in danger.

Every five years the Australian government publishes the most comprehensive assessment of the Great Barrier Reef — the Outlook Report. The first two Outlook Reports rated the long-term outlook of the reef as “poor.” The most recent Outlook Report, published in 2019, downgraded the long-term outlook to “very poor.” It said the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change.

Coral bleaching, caused by underwater heatwaves, is one of the most conspicuous impacts of climate change. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered three mass bleaching events in the space of just five years — in 2016, 2017 and 2020 — which killed an estimated 50 percent of the reef’s inshore coral.

On top of this, the Australian government’s water quality reports show it is failing to meet its own targets to reduce fertilizer and sediment runoff. The UNESCO experts who prepared the draft decision simply acted on this mounting evidence. Nonetheless, the draft decision has garnered global attention, and for good reason. The Great Barrier Reef is a global treasure, spanning an area large enough to be seen from space and providing habitat to an incredible array of fish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, and more. If the reef continues its decline, the future of those species could be undermined as well. 

Globally, reefs also have an important role to play in climate adaptation, serving as a critical barrier protecting coastal communities against impacts from storm surges brought on by more extreme weather and higher sea levels. But reefs from Florida to the Philippines face similar challenges to those we see in Australia. A 2018 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius could lead to a worldwide decline of 70 to 90 percent of all coral reefs by 2100. And if we fail to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, then nearly all could be lost.

That’s why we at WWF hope that this latest news about the Great Barrier Reef will serve as a global rallying cry. If we are to secure the future of all coral reefs, then we must do everything possible to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.  

The Paris Agreement, finalized in 2015, provided a framework to begin working toward that goal. But as nations prepare to meet this fall in Glasgow, Scotland, for a major climate summit to update their goals toward the agreement, we need greater ambition and greater urgency. We hope that event will serve as a forum for all nations to realign their climate targets toward a 1.5-degree future, and to develop concrete plans for meeting those targets. If the world fails in this mission, then the Great Barrier Reef — and all reefs for that matter — face a grim future. Let’s get to work.

Richard Leck is the head of Oceans for WWF-Australia. Follow the organization on Twitter @WWF_Australia.

Tags Biodiversity Climate change Coral bleaching Global warming Great Barrier Reef heatwaves Paris agreement World Heritage status

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