‘We can still save the world’s coral reefs’

By Angela Heathcote 12 October 2018
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Decorated coral reef biologist Terry Hughes says there’s still time to save the world’s coral reefs if we act fast.

CORAL REEF biologist and preeminent expert on the Great Barrier Reef Terry Hughes says there is still time to save the world’s coral reefs, following the release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report.

The landmark report, released on Monday, found there was as little as 12 years left to keep temperatures below 1.5°C, after which the global environmental, social and economical implications would be severe.

The IPCC made a number of recommendations based on the research of climate scientists to prevent exceeding the 1.5°C target through the reduction of carbon emissions, with the aim of bringing emissions to zero by 2050.

Previously, countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement agreed to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C. However, the IPCC now says 1.5°C is optimal.

A section of the report focused on the impact of global warming on the world’s coral reefs, finding that, at 1.5 degrees, 70 to 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs would die, and at two degrees, we would lose 99 per cent of coral reefs.

“From my perspective, climate change isn’t some future threat that may or may not happen, it’s already happening and we’ve been studying it since the 1980s. The Great Barrier Reef has experience four bleaching events since 1998,” Hughes said.

“The ‘news’ on the vulnerability of the coral reefs wouldn’t come as a surprise to any coral reef scientist.”

Bleached coral north of Townsville. (Image credit: G. Torda)

Hughes is currently in Sydney to participate in a climate change forum in Bondi, alongside former liberal leader John Hewson and businessman Geoff Cousins.

It’s believed that the byelection in the area will have a strong focus on climate change following the ousting of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from the seat of Wentworth following his abandonment of a cap on emissions, a key aspect of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Environment Minister Melissa Price’s reactions to the IPCC report have made headlines over the past few days.

“They casted doubt on the accuracy of the science even though many of them hadn’t even read it. The most ludicrous thing was when Scott Morrison said it was a global report and therefore didn’t apply to Australia, as if Australia is a part of another planet,” said Hughes.

Hughes pointed to a major conflict of interest between the Commonwealth and state governments, and the fossil fuel industry. “They get royalties from the export of fossil fuels, it generates tens of billions of dollars for the government budget, but the industry isn’t a big employer,” he said.

Hughes also said that the government’s rhetoric that Australia only contributes one per cent of global carbon emissions is misguided. “If you include carbon exports that figure rises to four per cent and that’s set to increase.

“The IPCC report recommends a 70 per cent reduction in coal by 2030, that’s only 12 years away. Meanwhile, we’re encouraging the extended use of coal-fired power stations, rather than encouraging them to close.”

Ideally, Hughes said a better reaction to the report would have been a formal commitment to reducing Australia’s emissions. “The government keeps saying that we’re going to meet our 26 to 28 per cent reduction by 2030, but emissions have gone up since the repeal of the price on carbon four years ago.

“It’s hard to imagine how they can reach that target now that there’s no mechanism after the failure of the NEG. We’re not on track to reach our inadequate commitments.”

Widespread bleaching of the north of the Great Barrier Reef. (Image credit: Terry Hughes)

Hughes’ said his presence at the Wentworth forum follows the trend of scientists “leaving their ivory towers” to communicate issues like climate change and its impact on coral reefs to the general public.

“The days when scientists spoke only to scientists are long gone. More and more scientists are moving outside of their comfort zones and are trying to communicate in public discourse because there’s a lot of confusion, both intentional and unintentional,” said Hughes.

Hughes added that some of this confusion comes from the global average warming temperature of 1.5°C. “It’s a fairly nebulous concept, because it’s the average temperature for the poles and tropics, land and sea.

“If the planet warms by an average of 1.5 degrees, some places will warm up less than that, like the tropics, meanwhile the poles have already warmed by six degrees, so there a latitudinal pattern to exactly where is warming the faster. It’s not uniform.”

Mid-latitude areas like Sydney have, in the past, experienced 47°C heat waves, which saw the breakdown of important infrastructure. Within a decade, Hughes predicts these heat waves will increase to 50°C with just an extra half a degree of warming.

As for the Great Barrier Reef, the difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C degree warming is stark. “The gap between the bleaching events is shrinking. So the question of whether we’ll have the Great Barrier Reef in 50 years depends on what we do to emissions and where the temperatures end up. I do believe, however, that we can still save the world’s coral reefs.”

“The ‘last chance’ rhetoric is all about timing. If we want to stop the planet from warming more than 1.5 it’s still just possible in terms of the physics and chemistry, but it may not be possible because of the social and institutional constraints. So it will mean immediate action, not delayed action, it will mean closing down coal as soon as possible.”

If we manage to bring our carbon emissions to zero, Hughes believes we’ll still have to capture carbon from the atmosphere, for which technologies are yet to be fully developed.

“Every temperature we go up to we’ll be stuck at for centuries to a millennium because the Earth cools at a slower pace than it warms, so other mechanisms will need to be applied,” he said.