Biggest barrier to saving the Reef is a political class in climate denial

Feb 2, 2022
Great Barrier Reef climate change climate action ocean
(Image: Unsplash)

The Morrison government is actively supporting new coal mines and massive new gas developments that will overwhelm all other efforts.

There was no moment of self-consciousness, no flicker of unease when the Prime Minister announced that “We’re investing in this Reef for generations and generations to come.”

The PM was announcing $1 billion over nine years for the Great Barrier Reef. Hoping that no-one would mention his government’s climate policies that will drive the Reef to extinction in our lifetimes (that is, if every other country made the same effort as his government), he chose to focus on all the other issues.

A few days earlier, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) had just confirmed December 2021 as the hottest December on the Reef since records began. Sea surface temperatures are up to more than 1°C above average and BoM’s forecast is for this to remain the case across the Marine Park for the next fortnight. Heat stress has been accumulating since the start of summer, increasing the risk of coral bleaching.

One doesn’t want to be cynical, but it is impossible not to be. For example, Tuesday, February 1 is the deadline set by the World Heritage Committee for submission of a report by the Australian government to the World Heritage Centre. The $1 billion announcement four days before the deadline allows the government to squeeze in an impressive sounding commitment to convince the committee his government really cares.

If the Morrison government was taking radical and urgent action to decarbonise the Australian economy to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less, $1 billion to reduce agricultural pollutants entering the Reef and a host of other things makes a lot of sense. But how can one welcome this announcement when the government is actively supporting new coal mines and massive new gas developments that will overwhelm all other efforts?

The Prime Minister and his government know that climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Surely the Prime Minister must have read the Summary for Policy Makers of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5C that says limiting to 1.5C will result in a further 70-90 per cent loss of the world’s coral reefs and limiting to 2C will see 99 per cent lost.

The World Heritage Committee requested that the Government’s Reef 2050 Plan – the overarching plan to protect and conserve the Great Barrier Reef – be revised to incorporate “accelerated action at all possible levels” to “address the threat from climate change” and to “urgently create opportunities for recovery of the property, in particular with regard to water quality”.

The government’s updated plan – released a few days before Christmas – bends over backwards to recognise that climate change is the biggest threat to the Reef. Then it proclaims the government’s pledge for net zero emissions by 2050, no doubt giving itself a big tick for “accelerated action”. But for coral reefs – one of the most climate vulnerable ecosystems on the planet – it is all about this decade.

Will the 2050 commitment and the $1 billion persuade the World Heritage Committee not to inscribe the Great Barrier Reef on the In Danger list this year? The jury is out and a lot depends on the Reactive Monitoring Mission that will soon come to Australia.

The committee requested that a monitoring mission be sent to Australia to ensure that the revised Reef 2050 Plan addresses the threat posed to the Reef by climate change and by poor water quality and other local threats.

The government sent the invitation last year but given COVID and international restrictions into Queensland, it has only been possible to come into Queensland without quarantine since January 22.

To complete its report in time for this year’s World Heritage Committee, the mission would need to come in February or March. It’s likely two officials will come: one from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the other from the World Heritage Program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The timing and geography are interesting: in the lead-up to a frenzied federal election and along the Queensland coastline, chock full of marginal seats. If the mission report finds that the 2050 commitment doesn’t pass the pub test for accelerated action, then the Reef may again be considered for the In Danger list.

Adding the world’s most famous coral reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger is a Code Red for all the world’s coral reefs. It is desperately needed. To mangle Alok Sharma’s memorable quote about 1.5C from the Glasgow COP, it is not too late to save the world’s coral reefs but their pulse is weak.

When a World Heritage site is added to the In Danger list, the relevant state party must develop “corrective measures” to tackle the problem. If the Reef is listed In Danger partly or largely because of climate change, the Australian government would need to come up with measures that will keep the Reef alive. The science is clear: 1.5C is a crucial threshold for the Great Barrier Reef. To commit to 1.5C, the Morrison government would need to radically reduce emissions this decade. That is why the PM is desperate to avoid an In Danger listing and that’s why he announced $1 billion for the Reef.

According to IUCN’s World Heritage Outlook report, the Great Barrier Reef is one of only two World Heritage sites on the planet that has both a ‘critical outlook’ and is at ‘very high current threat’ from climate change. The other site is the Everglades in Florida which is already on the In Danger list. The case for the Reef joining it is strong, despite the $1 billion.

Anthony Albanese’s announcement on January 7 of $163 million over four years for the Reef is a disappointing quantum in comparison to the Coalition’s. However, Albanese did promise to ensure funding continues to the end of the decade so there must be more coming. Labor’s climate policies – though not compatible with 1.5C – are better than the Coalition’s. If Labor wins the election, it will need to strengthen its climate ambition to give the Reef the best chance of surviving the next few decades of ocean warming.

A final two thoughts. The PM and the Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, were unwilling to say how much of the $1 billion will be allocated in the forward estimates. It is critical that the funding is front-loaded. The money needs to be spent now if the 2025 Reef water quality targets are to be met. These targets were promised to the World Heritage Committee in 2015 and we are well behind in meeting them.

Second, $580 million of the $1 billion is to improve water quality. That equates to nearly $65 million on average each year for nine years. That’s only slightly more than what has been spent on average to fix the water quality problem over the last few years. And still, it is not fixed.

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