|South-East Asia's Coral Triangle could die by the end of the century, the WWF says [AFP]
One of the world's most ecologically and economically important coral reef systems could be a dead wasteland by the end of the century without urgent action to tackle climate change, scientists have warned.
In a report released on Wednesday, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the collapse of Southeast Asia's Coral Triangle as a result of rising sea temperatures would threaten the livelihoods of more than 100 million people in the region.
It would also spell the end of an ecosystem labelled the marine equivalent of the Amazon rainforest, the report said.
The WWF report was released at the World Ocean Conference in Sulawesi, Indonesia, where senior officials from 80 countries are holding talks aimed at building an international commitment on marine conservation.
In its report the environmental group said the death of the reef system, which generates an estimated $3bn in annual income, would cause food production in the region to plummet by 80 per cent.
The Coral Triangle stretches between the Indian and Pacific oceans across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The diverse network of reefs has 76 per cent of the world's reef-building coral species and 35 per cent of its coral reef fish species – the highest density of species above and below the water anywhere on the planet.
The WWF report said much of this reef is doomed unless developed countries cut carbon emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels, and developing countries by at least 30 per cent from their current levels, by the year 2020.
"Decisive action must be taken immediately or a major crisis will develop," the report said, citing evidence from 300 scientific studies and 20 climate change experts.
"Hundreds of thousands of unique species, entire communities and societies will be in jeopardy."
However, a senior official in Indonesia's environment ministry said a 30 per cent emission cut was an unrealistic expectation for developing nations.
"I am not sure it's possible. We can only achieve around a 17 per cent cut by 2025," Marwansyah Lobo Balia, the environment minister's assistant, said.
"Of course there is a lot of coral bleaching but most of the damage we have found so far is not because of global warming but because of human activities such as pollution and fisheries that use bombs."
The report warned that if nothing is done the situation will lead to a steady rise in sea temperatures, which will kill off the coral and its dependent wildlife.
"People have compared the Coral Triangle's biodiversity richness to the Amazon," Abdul Halim, the head of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) Coral Triangle Centre, said.
Like the endangered Brazilian rainforest region, the area's huge biodiversity faces a daunting set of challenges arising from overfishing, climate change and impoverished communities.
The 220-page WWF report drives home a message of urgency ahead of talks to conclude a new international climate change treaty in Denmark in December.
"Unless there is some sort of miracle, it will mean aggregated poverty and when you couple it with the inundation of coastlines, you will get to the point where whole societies are destabilised," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the report's author and a marine expert at the University of Queensland in Australia.
The US government has pledged $40m in funding for a five-year programme to improve management of marine and coastal resources within the Coral Triangle.
"We are looking to promote better understanding of the role of the ocean in the climate system," said Mary Glackin, the US deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere.
"It's really a web of life. So you need to be concerned about the very smallest thing up to the very high predators."