Known as “rainforests of the sea” for their biodiversity, warm-water coral reefs around the world have undergone rapid and accelerating changes in recent decades as ocean temperatures have risen with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The cumulative impacts of local human activities—such as overfishing, nutrient pollution, and coastal development—further degrade these vulnerable ecosystems and make them less resilient to the effects of climate change.
In July 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme published an analysis of international coral reef policy that was conducted by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. U.N. member states requested the analysis to determine whether the numerous global and regional commitments made to protect and manage coral reefs are sufficiently designed to address the various human impacts to these delicate ecosystems.
The Nicholas Institute team studied 232 policy instruments that directly or indirectly support conservation and sustainable management of coral reef ecosystems. The analysis showed that the body of international commitments has been broadly designed to address the key man-made causes of change to coral reefs. However, many of the commitments are generally applied to “marine and coastal ecosystems,” and the majority are voluntary.
The final report, Analysis of Policies related to the Protection of Coral Reefs, identifies at least four potential pathways by which international policy responses can help coral reef states address local drivers of reef loss and enhance coral reef resilience (and potential for survival) in the face of climate change:
- Maintain the current international reef-related policy framework as designed, but with a focus on accelerated implementation at the national level;
- Strengthen the existing international policy framework;
- Introduce new international instruments and/or governance mechanisms; and
- Rapid support to states for policy implementation, i.e. “the coral reef-state solution.” These potential pathways provide distinct but not mutually exclusive strategic approaches to support discussion and agreement on a way forward by the U.N. Environment Assembly.