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Sharm el-Sheikh & its Coral Reefs - November 2022

Cop27; the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, the 2022 Conference of the Parties, took place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh this month.

After 2 weeks, it still went into overtime as world leaders made a breakthrough on support for climate victims but avoided confronting the oil and gas sector.


Procedurally, no big decisions were due to land at Cop27. But the convergence of multiple crises in 2022 – Russia’s war, global inflation, Covid’s long tail and of course climate disasters – raised the stakes of every increment.


The biggest breakthrough came on support for climate victims. Developing countries got the loss and damage fund they fought for – on the proviso that the burden of paying into it does not all fall on rich governments. Who pays and who benefits is a battle for Cop28 in Dubai next year.

There was little to stop polluters causing more damage, though. A proposal to phase out all fossil fuels, not just the coal power targeted at last year’s summit, went nowhere. The Egyptian presidency openly struck gas deals on the side-lines. Behind closed doors, countries including Saudi Arabia and Russia made the argument that "oil doesn’t cause climate change, emissions do."


But there was some good news, three decades ago, small island states and poorer countries started calling for compensation for the damage climate change inflicts on their communities. While the word “compensation” became taboo, they finally got finance for “loss and damage” on the formal agenda at Cop27.


Wealthy nations, reluctant to put their hands in their pockets, offered up a “mosaic of solutions” like insurance and early warning systems. Developing countries were determined to get a dedicated new fund. These conditions were partly met when developing nations accepted a revised offer from the EU. The US and other rich countries got on board, and they all agreed “to establish a fund for responding to loss and damage”. 

A transitional committee will investigate what funding is needed and where the money should come from. It will tackle the thorny issues of whether to expand the donor base to countries like China or Qatar (countries that have only recently benefitted from fossil fuels) and report to Cop28.


However, you don’t have to travel far from the sprawling convention centre that’s staging the UN climate talks to see what’s at stake. Sharm el-Sheikh is fringed by an ecosystem seemingly facing worldwide catastrophic harm from global heating – coral reefs.


The resort town is flanked by the Ras Mohammed Nature Reserve, a marine sanctuary in the Red Sea. It's at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula, overlooking the Gulf of Suez on the west and the Gulf of Aqaba to the east.

When the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt from Israel, Ras Muhammad was declared for protection from fishing and other human activities. Some of the fishing methods, such as using dynamite and knives were also impacting on the coral reef and the fish populations. In 1983, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) established the area as a marine reserve for the protection of marine and terrestrial wildlife. The park was also established to protect against urban sprawl from Sharm el-Sheikh and other coastal developments.


The name literally means "Mohammad's Head", where "head" in this instance means "headland". Although it is also said in the area that the name arose because in side / profile view the contour of the cliff looks like the profile of a bearded man's face, with horizontal hard strata providing the nose and bearded chin.


Back to Cop27. As negotiators haggle over an agreement that may or may not maintain a goal to restrain global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the nearby corals face a more brutally unyielding scenario.


Even if the 1.5°C limit is kept, more than 90% of worldwide reefs will be destroyed by severe aquatic heatwaves with the more likely temperature increase of 2°C, meaning all coral formations will face their doom. We face the “stark reality that there is no safe limit of global [heating] for coral reefs” as Adele Dixon, a researcher at University of Leeds’ School of Biology, put it after unveiling this grim research earlier this year.


The corals found off the coast of Sharm el-Sheikh (part of the 4,000 km Red Sea network of corals that has 200 species of coral just off Egypt alone) are considered by scientists to be more resilient to global heating than reefs found elsewhere in the world, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia – which has suffered four mass bleaching events in the past six years.


Bleaching occurs when coral becomes so heat-stressed it expels its food; the symbiotic algae which gives it its colour, turning it ghostly white and putting it at risk of death.


About 2.5m years ago, sea levels fell, and the Red Sea was cut off from the Indian Ocean, making it very hot and salty. Corals that have endured here were the ones able to withstand high levels of heat. The Red Sea could be the last place where significant corals are left clinging on as the world barrels towards climate breakdown.


But even here, there are signs of stress, "as you go in towards the shore, there’s very little living coral." The ones that are alive, are "small in size and there’s a lot of dead areas on the reef." Said Simon Donner, a climate scientist and coral reef expert at the University of British Columbia.


Large resorts dot the Sharm el-Sheikh coastline and tourists trampling on corals, along with pollution discharged directly into the water from hotels and other developments, has degraded these reefs. Donner said these localized impacts do play a role – he gets more questions about the harms of wearing sunscreen when diving near corals than anything else – but that the climate crisis is the overwhelming cause of coral decline.


“It’s a little bit of tourism, but it’s mostly climate change,” he said. “If we can reduce the direct human impacts, reefs have a better chances of surviving climate change. But if we don’t do something about greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not going to make a difference.”

Most of the universe of coral reefs, and their benefits, lies far from the curious eyes of tourists at all-inclusive resorts. More than half a billion people worldwide rely upon reefs as vital habitat for the fish they catch, with numerous coastal communities shielded from powerful coastal storms by the barrier of reef structures. Despite covering a small fraction of the ocean, about a quarter of all marine life, including the colourful fish that flit around the patchy reefs around Sharm el-Sheikh, are found around coral habitat.


Some remote, sheltered corals might remain in far reaches of the oceans if the temperature rise is constrained, but we are heading for a largely coral-less world. The decisions that are being made inside a conference centre in Sharm el-Sheikh are going to determine the future of an ecosystem right off its coast.


Geography, digital geography has a role to play in the various outcomes of Climate Change, watch this space as new technologies and methodologies evolve in our ever-changing world.

– Matt Couldrey [geoid - digital geography]

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