Claire's blog

Climate focus: Coral Reefs - victims of our fossil fuel addiction

In their current form, coral reefs have been around for around 60 million years. A quarter of all marine life, including over 4,000 species of fish, are dependent on coral reefs at some point in their life cycle. But these extraordinary ecosystems cannot survive the regular marine heatwaves caused by global heating.

In the 1980s, the first observed incidents occurred of coral reefs turning white over extended areas. Scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg discovered the cause. Corals are animals related to jellyfish and anemones. Their polyps take food from the water but they also depend on symbiotic algae which provide them with an additional food source through photosynthesis. Under heat stress, corals expel these algae, leaving their tissue a ghostly white. Without their algae, corals slowly starve, and may die. By the time of the first global bleaching event in 1998, Hoegh-Guldberg was able to predict that as early as the 2020s some reefs could be bleaching six or more times a decade - far too frequent to give them time to recover. The scientist was branded an ‘alarmist’. But in 2018 a landmark review by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that if the earth warmed by 1.5C above pre-industrial levels this “will result in the further loss of 90% of reef-building corals compared to today”.  

In March 2023, global sea surface temperatures started breaking records, and have stayed that way since. The warming impact of El Niño has further exacerbated the heating caused by fossil fuel burning. These extreme ocean temperatures have led to what is believed to be the worst planet-wide coral bleaching event ever. This is the fourth global bleaching event on record and the second in the last 10 years. A global bleaching event is declared when at least 12% of corals in each of the main ocean basins - Pacific, Atlantic and Indian - experience bleaching-level heat stress within a 12-month period.

Climate focus: Wildfires and megadrought in Chile

In the past days, wildfires have ravaged central Chile with a death toll of at least 131, and more than 300 people still missing at the time of writing. These fires are the most deadly, but not the first in recent years - six of the most destructive fire seasons on record in Chile have occurred in the past decade. Particularly notable are 2017 and February 2023 when fierce fires raged across the country killing dozens, injuring thousands, and leaving many people homeless. 

The fires come on the back of an extreme heatwave. Chile’s capital Santiago reached 37.3C on 31 January, the country’s third-highest recorded temperature in more than a century. This heatwave has affected large parts of the continent

On top of the long-term global heating trend, temperatures have been pushed even higher by El Niño. This summer heatwave was preceded by an extraordinary winter heatwave across much of South America. In August 2023, temperatures in the Chilean Andes rose as high as 38.9C in mid winter. 

The long-term trend is just as worrying. For over a decade, Chile has been grappling with a megadrought. This is a crisis of climatic change and lack of rainfall, but also a social and economic crisis of water management. Huge amounts of water are consumed by monoculture tree plantations to the south of Santiago and the avocado orchards in the north. Meanwhile the glaciers of the Andes continue to shrink. In 2022, water rationing was introduced in the capital, Santiago, the capital.

COP28 - what happened

A ‘historic agreement’? COP28 was the first such summit in three decades of UN climate negotiations to agree the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels. Which frankly says more about the failures of the process as a whole than the success of COP28. So what are the key outcomes from Dubai that we need to understand?

The final text, the ‘Global Stocktake’ did not in the end agree the ‘phase out’ of fossil fuels which more than 100 countries had called for, with oil producing nations, notably Saudi Arabia, implacably opposed. Instead, it called on countries to contribute to global efforts to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.

The overwhelming message from Global South countries was that while language might be significant, at COP28 it was much less important than the failure of richer nations to put money on the table. Poorer countries face three overwhelming costs they are unable to meet without this:

  • Adaptation: In a heated and unstable world, preventative investment in climate-resilient food production, coastal flood adaptation, management of scarce water resources, etc., is essential. But climate finance for this has been minimal. The adaptation finance gap is estimated at $194-366 billion. At COP28 an adaptation framework was agreed but not the money needed to deliver.
  • Loss and damage: Extreme weather events are increasingly causing severe losses, and those in poorer countries who have done least to cause the climate crisis are least able to bear the cost. At COP27, countries finally agreed to set up a fund to pay for this loss and damage, after a 30-year fight led by small island states and developing countries. On the very first day of COP28, the fund was formally adopted, and by the end of COP28 $770m had been pledged. Some countries, such as the UK, re-pledged funding already announced. Notably the US pledged a measly $17.5m. By comparison, estimates for the annual cost of climate damage have varied from $100bn-$580bn - the fund so far covers less than 1% of what is needed.
  • Transition: Richer nations built their economies on exploiting fossil fuels. The Paris agreement includes a commitment from developed countries to transfer funds not just for adaptation to climate impacts but so that poorer countries are able to develop without reliance on fossil fuels and meet their emissions targets. The commitment to provide $100bn a year by 2020 has not been met. The governments of countries such as Uganda say they cannot be expected to forgo the billions that exploiting their oil reserves would bring in when no alternative funding is forthcoming. Many countries are locked in a debt trap, forced to keep drilling to service their debts. 'Climate finance' as further loans is a bitter irony.

There are clear loopholes in the text, such as the call for the acceleration of carbon capture & storage, a technology which is unproven and expensive but can be used as a fig leaf for fossil fuel expansion. ‘Transitional fuels’ are ‘recognised’ for ensuring energy security, a clear reference to the idea that gas could be used as a ‘bridge fuel’ - which is not compatible with staying below 1.5C.

COP28 was supposed to finalise rules on carbon markets (Article 6). However, talks ended in deadlock. Despite multiple scandals around carbon trading, the US had been pushing for ‘light touch’ regulation, which would allow secrecy and potentially double counting of emissions cuts. This was blocked by countries demanding greater scrutiny as well as human rights and environmental safeguards. However this leaves the existing ‘voluntary’ carbon market unregulated for at least another year.

When it comes to climate breakdown, the bottom line is not politics but physics, which is not affected by words but only by the reality of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions which continue to rise. The nations facing the most immediate existential threat, the Alliance of Small Island States, were clear in their statement, “It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”