Rescuing the Reef … again.

May 8, 2018

There must be a federal election coming as the government has announced a rescue package for the Great Barrier Reef. Like a damsel (fish) in distress, the Reef has experienced many rescue packages. As early as the mid-1990’s, the federal government introduced the Sugar Coast Environment Rescue Package which aimed to preserve important lowland habitats along the Reef coastline. Governments have been announcing rescue packages ever since.

This latest package is the largest ever. Half a billion dollars over five years will be spent to improve water quality, control the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns starfish, conduct research, engage communities and ensure monitoring and reporting.

The timing of the announcement on 29 April was interesting – two days before the arrival of French President Macron. This was unlikely to be a coincidence. The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s most famous natural asset. News of the two severe coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 reverberated around the world. Half of all the shallow water corals died during those two summers due to two searing marine heatwaves, fuelled by abnormally high sea temperatures, little cloud cover and weak ocean currents.

President Macron announced at the Sydney Opera House that there is no Planet B. No doubt the federal government was expecting him to say that. With no hope of being able to announce an energy policy to save the Reef, the federal government rushed out a rescue package that focussed on everything other than reducing Australia’s carbon pollution.

There is no doubt that the Reef needs more funding to fix poor water quality. Fertiliser and pesticide runoff from cane farms and sediment runoff from grazing properties has been a long term problem.

When heavy rainfalls arrive in the two big grazing-dominated catchments (the Fitzroy and the Burdekin), soil by the tonne is washed into creeks and rivers that flow into the formerly pristine waters of the Reef.  When trees are cleared, the ground is bare and cattle are allowed to roam near gullies and stream banks, erosion becomes a massive problem. And it’s extremely costly to fix.

When lowland wetlands are drained, rainforest and paperbark woodlands are cleared and excessive amounts of fertiliser and pesticide are applied to cane farms, nutrient runoff becomes a massive problem. Nutrient runoff leads to more phytoplankton in the Reef’s waters, which in turns encourages population booms of coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns starfish.

Investment in improved farm practices should in theory be able to solve these problems. But millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been thrown at these problems in the past with little to show for it. Now the clock is ticking for the Reef, in Canberra, Brisbane and Paris.

In mid-2020, the World Heritage Committee will once again focus its attention on the state of the Great Barrier Reef. In December 2019, the Australian and Queensland governments must report to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris on the ‘State of Conservation’ of the Reef. Time is running out to turn things around. If the condition of the Reef isn’t on an upwards trend or at least stabilising, the Committee may very well list the Great Barrier Reef on the Convention’s In Danger list.

That’s another reason why the federal government is rushing $500 million out the door. The Queensland government is doing its fair share of the work. On 3 May, the Queensland Parliament passed stronger vegetation protection laws, now that the Palaszczuk government has a majority on the floor. It also plans to introduce more effective Reef water quality regulations. It has a 50% by 2030 renewable energy target, and it has vetoed the NAIF loan to Adani.

With the blinding lack of leadership on climate change emanating from the federal government, the only card it had to play was with the Budget. But instead of investing it through the federal government’s Reef Trust, the government made a rapid fire decision to give $444 million of the $500 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The GBR Foundation was established as an independent charity with a Board headed by former Commonwealth Bank Chairman John Schubert to attract private sector and philanthropic funds for Reef research. These days the Foundation also supports some on-ground projects. According to its latest Annual Report 2016, the Foundation’s annual revenue was $8 million. Getting a one lump sum cheque of $444 million in June will therefore change things considerably.

Effectively, the federal government has outsourced most of its financial support for Reef protection. This is an extremely unusual move. The federal government can be extremely slow and sclerotic when spending funds, and that may be another reason why money is being shovelled out the door at a great rate to a Foundation which may be able to spend it more effectively and quickly.

The spotlight will be on the Foundation to deliver. The federal government will remain ultimately responsible and still maintains the Reef Trust, a fund worth $260 million that supports projects to help deliver the 151 actions in the Reef 2050 Plan, the joint federal/state plan that got Australia a “get out of jail card” at the World Heritage Committee in 2015. The Trust has allocated $140 million so far and runs through to 2021/22.

The Queensland government committed $90 million of additional funds to improve water quality over five years.

There’s a fair bit of money to go around, although it’s worth bearing in mind only $201 million of the $500 million is for water quality, and that may still not be enough. $58 million is to fight the Crown-of-Thorns starfish and $100 million is for Reef restoration research. All this money ought to improve the resilience of the Reef in the face of a warming climate, and maybe identify a few heat tolerant coral species that can be bred in the lab, but unless the government swiftly changes tack and introduces an ambitious emissions reduction target – and revokes the environmental approval for Adani’s massive coal mine – then Australians will be right to be sceptical, verging on cynical, about whether the government really does care about the future of our greatest natural treasure. The only way to gain credibility is to commit to and implement an energy policy that does our fair share of keeping global average temperature well below 1.5C. There is no Plan B for the Reef.

Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist. She currently leads a campaign for the Australian Marine Conservation Society to protect the Great Barrier Reef and will be attending the World Heritage Committee meeting this year in Bahrain. @ImogenZethoven


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