The study, released by UN Environment, International Sustainability unit and International Coral reef Initiative, highlights that achieving improvements in coral reef health and unlocking major financial gains could be within reach.

The world's two most important coral reefs are:

  • The Coral Triangle;
  • The Mesoamerican Reef.

The Coral Reef economy published two possible scenarios from now until 2030. First, the Healthy Reef scenario in which reefs will alter to a healthy state via investment, protection and preservation. On the other hand, the Degraded Reef scenario where the health of the reefs continues to decline from current levels.

Taking into consideration the healthy reef scenario, live coral cover is set to rise to 14.1% in Mesoamerica and 36.4% in the Coral Triangle by 2030. Under the degraded reef scenario, live coral cover is expected to fall from an average of 3.7% in 2017 to 1.6% in 2030 in Mesoamerica and from 16.6% to 11% in the Coral Triangle.

The difference between the two scenarios highlights that a change to improved coral reef health from one of further reduction in the period to 2030 could unlock another $37 billion, meaning $2.6 billion per year in Indonesia and $35 billion more, as $2.5 million per year, in Mesoamerica. The improvement can be achieved in the three key reef-dependent sectors:

  • Tourism;
  • Commercial fisheries;
  • Coastal development.

Key findings

Coral Reefs Underpin Significant Economic Value for the Private Sector

The private sector economic value of coral reefs across the tourism, commercial fisheries and coastal development sectors is linked to their health. Today, their economic value to these three sectors equals $6.2 billion per annum in Mesoamerica and $13.9 billion per annum in the Coral Triangle. If reefs continue to decline, their per annum value could fall by $3.1 billion in Mesoamerica and $2.2 billion in the Coral Triangle by 2030.

The Value of Future Healthy Coral Reefs is High

A shift toward a healthy state by 2030 could unlock an additional $35 billion (or $2.5 billion per annum) in additional value to the three sectors in Mesoamerica, and an additional $37 billion (or $2.6 billion per annum) in Indonesia. These potential returns highlight the financial business case for the private sector, along with governments and NGOs, to invest in coral reef health. Innovative and sustainable financing mechanisms will be essential to ensure investment flows.

Societal Co-Benefits of Healthy Coral Reefs Could Exceed Private Gains

The societal benefits of ecosystem restoration could be even greater than the financial gains of the private sector. For example, reducing the discharge of untreated municipal wastewater into coastal environments can create health benefits. Erosion management may reduce agricultural soil loss, while coastal afforestation can support sustainable forestry and increase carbon capture. The expansion of no-take zones promotes sustainable fisheries by preserving fish stocks and diversity. The results of this study should therefore not be taken as a reflection of the total value of coral reefs, but as one component of the broader economic, social and environmental benefits of protecting coral reef assets.

Policies to Enhance Coral Reef Health Generate a Financial Return on Investment

A range of policies and interventions that could produce financial net benefits are available to governments and the private sector. The potential return on investment ranged from 44:1 for the expansion of no-take marine protected areas in Mesoamerica, to 9:1 for better erosion management on agricultural land in Indonesia. These findings should encourage businesses, policymakers and NGOs to devise policies and initiatives to help grow a sustainable reef-dependent economy.

Interventions to Protect Coral Reefs Contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals

Action to enhance the health of coral reefs will help deliver the 2030 Development Agenda and SDGs. The four interventions analysed all directly deliver on SDG 14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resource, while also contributing to SDG 6 on ensuring water and sanitation for all, and SDG 15 on the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

Climate Change Poses Significant Risk and Adds Uncertainty

Efforts to enhance coral reef health must be considered within the longer-term context of climate change, which presents an existential threat to many reefs. Even if the objectives of the Paris Agreement are achieved, reports warn that up to 90% of all coral reefs could be lost by 2050. Acting on local threats (including overfishing, erosion, and pollution) in order to maximise reef resilience may help moderate impacts, but climate change effects, including ocean warming and altered cyclone and rainfall patterns, add uncertainty to the analysis presented in this report.

Toward a Healthy Reef by 2030

This study shows that interventions targeting sustainable fisheries, wastewater and erosion management could have a positive impact on the health of coral reefs and the reefdependent economy. In Mesoamerica, these interventions could close 45% of the gap between the estimated value derived from a degraded and a healthy reef by 2030. In the Coral Triangle, the interventions could close 70% of the gap. These results highlight that the goal of rapidly achieving major improvements in coral reef health could be within reach.

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