Can restoring coral reefs save one of the most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change?

This year sees the launch of United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and some United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development – a new report on coral reef restoration launches both.

Coral reefs are among the most ecologically and economically valuable ecosystems on our planet. Covering less than 0.1% of the global ocean, they are home to more than 25% of marine biodiversity and serve at least one billion people with a wide range of ecosystem services such as coastal protection, fish production, sources of medicines, recreational benefits and income from tourism.

However, they are also on the front lines of the climate crisis due to their sensitivity to warming seas. Up to 50% of our coral reefs have already disappeared. According to recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), up to 90% of coral reefs could disappear by 2050, even if warming is limited to a 1.5°C increase.

We cannot afford to lose this precious ecosystem. As we strive to accelerate climate action to halt global warming, there is a great urgency to protect our remaining reefs. How to get there is the subject of a new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), which concludes that well-planned, well-funded, and long-term coral reef restoration can be a useful tool to support coral reef resilience.

The report titled Restoring coral reefs as a strategy for improving ecosystem services aims to help practitioners, managers and decision-makers determine whether and how to use coral reef restoration as a strategy for protecting coral reefs at local, regional and global levels.

“Given the limited spatial scale, high costs, and limited evidence of long-term, ecologically relevant success, the need to apply coral reef restoration must be carefully considered. If implemented , it should be integrated into an overall management framework based on reef resilience,” the report states, which also notes that there have been considerable investments in coral reef restoration research and development to improve the cost, efficiency and scalability.

“This report provides a useful and innovative guideline for experts as we enter the decades of ocean science and ecosystem restoration,” says Leticia Carvalho, Head of Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP.

“But it also makes it clear that nothing can replace rapid transformation towards better management of the natural systems that have formed over billions of years on our finely tuned planet. While critical interventions, recreating and restoring will always be more expensive and more complicated than maintenance, so we have to do it wisely.

There is a growing feeling that action to protect corals needs to happen quickly.

A UNEP report from November 2020, Projections of future coral bleaching conditions using IPCC CMIP6 modelsindicates that coral bleaching is happening faster than expected and that the future health of the world’s reefs is inextricably linked to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.


“Coral reef restoration faces challenges associated with the relative newness of the field and the sense of urgency of its applicability,” says the report’s lead author, Margaux Hein.

However, she points out that this sense of urgency creates positive energy towards local and global collaborations to improve the effectiveness of coral reef restoration. “Coral reef restoration is not a stand-alone solution, but it is potentially a very useful tool to complement resilience-based management strategies,” she says.

Ecosystem restoration efforts must be planned and funded as long-term strategies over at least 10-20 years and require “climate-smart” designs that account for future uncertainties and changes.

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