UNFCCC is a death sentence for coral reefs and low islands: The down to earth solution to reverse climate change

Thomas J. Goreau, Global Coral Reef Alliance

The 2˚C degree “acceptable” level of warming is a death sentence for coral reefs, low-lying islands and coasts, violating the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) goal to protect the world’s natural life support systems.

Every coral reef has already suffered severe high temperature mortality. They can’t take any more warming. 100 countries’ major marine economic resources – fisheries, tourism, shore protection, sand supply and biodiversity – will be lost. Coral reef destruction causes 60 per cent of all global ecosystem service losses, largely borne by islanders. The next El Niño, expected in 2015, will cause ocean temperatures increases that will kill most remaining corals.

Low-lying island inhabitants are being driven out by global sea level rise. The Guna Indians of Panama are abandoning nearly a quarter of their islands. Whole nations will follow, along with billions of people in coastal areas. They can’t take any more sea level rise. We can easily grow coral reefs at record rates to rapidly restore fisheries and eroding beaches – as covered in my book ‘Innovative Methods of Marine Ecoystem Restoration’ – but the technology is not being used on a large scale.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models seriously underestimate impacts because they cover a few per cent of responses continuing thousands of years. Nearly one million years of climate data show long-term equilibrium temperature and sea level for 400 ppm of CO2 are +17 and +23 metres, many times higher than IPCC forecasts. Our descendants are committed to these increases, even if we stop all fossil fuel use today, though it won’t happen in the lifetime of those who caused the problem. We can use this data to determine the safe level of CO2 – 260 ppm – way below UNFCCC targets.

No emissions reductions can reduce CO2 to safe levels; and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not feasible, affordable, nor capable of reducing existing excesses. Both emissions reductions and CCS could only slightly slow the rate of increases. The only possible solution is restoring natural ecosystems and soil capacity to absorb carbon. Soil has six times more carbon than the atmosphere, and only a 10 per cent increase could absorb the excess carbon in our atmosphere. But soil is not listed as a UNFCCC carbon sink, countries don’t account for soil carbon, and there is no serious funding for farmers to increase it.

Soil carbon storage technologies are mature and successfully applied in every continent except Antarctica. My new book, ‘Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase’, shows how to remove the dangerous excess as fast as possible.

Photosynthesis, along with carbon storage using ancient Indigenous Amazonian Indian biochar technology, could absorb the excess in a few decades, greatly increasing soil fertility, retaining nutrients, minerals, and water. Increased soil carbon greatly increases food production, forestry, and groundwater recharge, reduces temperature, and produces carbon-negative biomass energy while reducing CO2.

Large scale restoration of ecosystems and soils is the only way we can remove the carbon from where it is doing the most damage, and put it back in the ground where it does the most good – just in time to save coral reefs, islands, and low lying coasts from extinction. But, incredibly, it is not even being discussed at COP20, despite the fact that 2015 is the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Year of the Soil.

UNFCCC cannot serve as a scientifically-sound climate management tool until it includes complete accounting of all greenhouse gas sources and sinks, and mandates saving our most critical climate-sensitive ecosystems. As Senior Scientific Affairs Officer for Global Climate Change and Biodiversity at the UN Centre for Science and Technology for Development in 1989, I included these in the first UNFCCC draft, which was gutted by Member States choosing to monitor selected sources and sinks while condemning coral reefs to death. Incomplete accounting must be rectified for the UNFCCC to be scientifically-sound and effective. Governments must deal with real causes rather than symptoms, and stop ignoring the only solutions that can solve the crisis in time to avert the worst damages.

Emissions reductions are essential but insufficient, only restoration of soil carbon can make them work. The solutions are available but are being ignored: we cannot afford any further delay in action implementing them without sacrificing reefs and low coasts.