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UNESCO calls for concerted action to strengthen the resilience of coral reefs

08 July 2019

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Great Barrier Reef, Australia
© Jayne Jenkins/Coral Reef Image Bank

As a side event of the meeting of the World Heritage Committee (Baku from 1 to 10 July), UNESCO and its partners met on 5 July to take stock of the initiative launched in October 2018 to strengthen coral reef adaptation to climate change.

The initiative aims to establish an effective strategy for climate change resilience in five coral reefs inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), the Lagoons of New Caledonia (France), the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (Belize), the Ningaloo Coast, and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia).

The event brought together those who launched the initiative, and experts and managers of marine World Heritage sites to present the effects of climate change on their sites. Beyond the five sites concerned, the event also provided an opportunity to present a strategy to support all World Heritage sites’ adaptation to climate change.

“Coral reefs are the major witnesses of climate change,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “The health of our planet and the future of our humanity can be seen today in the poor condition of these reefs. Swift action is needed to reverse the trend and limit the rise in temperatures. Such action can only be undertaken on a global scale, and UNESCO presents the most appropriate platform to accelerate this effort.”

The four-year project launched last year is endowed with a budget of $9 million. It follows the World Heritage Committee 2017 decision calling on all States Parties to step up actions to strengthen World Heritage properties’ resilience to climate change. The project also builds on the results of the first global assessment, published in 2017, which found that heat stress episodes have resulted in increased severe bleaching and mortality in coral reefs inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. During the 2014-2017 global coral bleaching wave, at least 15 World Heritage coral reefs were exposed to repeated severe heat stress, with some of the highest mortality rates ever recorded. Coral bleaching and mortality due to heat stress is expected to continue with greater intensity in coming decades, unless carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are significantly reduced.

The assessment also reiterates that limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in keeping with the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is essential for the coral reefs’ survival. The evaluation recognizes the importance of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development, which will begin in 2021 and be coordinated by UNESCO through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

The initiative is led by an international consortium of partners including UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, the Rockefeller Foundation (100 resilient cities), the BHP Foundation, the Nature Conservancy’s Reef Resilience Network, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and AECOM, the global environmental engineering company.