IMOGEN ZETHOVEN. Outsourcing Reef Protection.

Jun 2, 2018

The outsourcing of nearly half a billion dollars of taxpayer funds to an independent Foundation to protect the Great Barrier Reef is unusual by any measure.

While the full story is yet to emerge, what is already clear is that the federal government approached the Great Barrier Reef Foundation in a rushed manoeuvre to shovel money out the door before the end of the financial year. The process allegedly didn’t involve a competitive tender and apparently, the Foundation’s Board contains a substantial number of members with corporate backgrounds in the energy sector. 

However, while the media spotlight is trained on who got the money and how they got it, what really matters is going unexamined: the half a billion dollars does nothing to tackle the biggest threat to the Reef, climate change. The Turnbull government’s egregious failure to tackle this problem will mean that half a billion dollars for projects such as water quality improvement and Crown-of-Thorns Starfish control will be wasted unless it rapidly changes course. 

Australia needs to move beyond coal and other fossil fuels and switch rapidly to renewable energy if the Reef is to have a future. Other developed countries are already well progressed down this path yet Australia, the custodian of this natural wonder, has an emissions reduction target so weak that if every other country made a commensurate level of effort, all the world’s reefs would die. And the latest data shows Australia’s emissions are rising. 

Last year, the World Heritage Committee called on all countries to undertake an ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement to save World Heritage coral reefs. Almost a year later, Australia has seen zero progress towards this. After two consecutive coral bleaching events that killed 50% of the shallow water corals in the Great Barrier Reef, this is staggering. 

This absence of action is unlikely to escape the attention of the World Heritage Committee, which is meeting in Bahrain in late June. 

In 2015, the Great Barrier Reef narrowly escaped being placed on the In Danger list by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. The get out of jail card was the Reef 2050 Plan, a joint federal and Queensland Government plan to reduce threats to the Reef. The Committee welcomed the plan but put Australia on probation for 5 years. 

In 2020, the Committee will once again assess Australia’s management of the Reef. If the Reef is in a worse state than 2015, it runs a real risk of being placed on the In Danger list. 

The federal government is required to send the Committee a report on the state of the Reef by December 2019, and the Committee will then make its judgement. That’s 18 months away. The government won’t admit it publicly, but it’s worried about what the World Heritage Committee may decide in 2020. So much so it decided to join the Committee late last year, for a 4-year term, and will now be a member during the 2020 meeting. 

And given its shocking lack of action to tackle climate change, maybe the government is hoping a cool half a billion dollars (over six years) will sound impressive enough to the World Heritage Committee to avoid an In Danger listing. All the while avoiding the elephant in the room. 

The Australian public isn’t fooled. Research released by WWF and Roy Morgan revealed the Australian public believe the Great Barrier Reef is the single most important environmental issue for the country. That same research showed the public sees climate change as one of the greatest direct threats to the Reef. 

Australians, and the world community, expect and demand action on climate change to protect the largest living structure on Earth and one of the world’s most biologically rich and beautiful treasures. The question is: is the federal government capable of doing so?

Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist. She currently leads a campaign for the Australian Marine Conservation Society to protect the Great Barrier Reef. @ImogenZethoven

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