Great Barrier Reef Close To Be Included on In-Danger List

Conservationists say an official government report to the UN’s World Heritage Committee to be released next week must show Australia has fresh plans to attack the Great Barrier Reef’s two key threats – climate change and water quality. At a forum earlier this month environment ministers signed-off on the “state of conservation” report for the reef, which was then sent to UNESCO’s world heritage committee. A report to be published on Friday by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society details what they say Australia needs to do to avoid the Committee placing the reef on its “in danger” list when it meets in China next year. The report says Australia must revise its central Great Barrier Reef policy, the Reef 2050 plan, to fill a “gaping hole” left by the absence of efforts to keep global heating to 1.5C. Australia needs an “energy transition plan,” the report argues, that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s ambitious target.

Richard Leck, WWF-Australia’s Head of Oceans, told Guardian Australia the government was now clearly acknowledging climate change as the reef’s greatest threat, and that temperatures needed to be kept to 1.5C. He said, “With all of that in front of us, the committee may be very concerned that Australia is acknowledging the need to limit global warming to 1.5C but, at this stage, is not walking the walk.” Mass coral bleaching along the reef in 2016 and again in 2017 killed half the shallow water corals, with northern sections hit hard. The following year, the number of new corals crashed by 89%. In July 2019, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority published a revised climate change position statement, when it stressed the need to stick to a 1.5C global warming target, adding, “If we are to secure a future for the Great Barrier Reef and coral reef ecosystems globally, there is an urgent and critical need to accelerate actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.” In August, the authority’s five-yearly outlook report downgraded the long-term prospects for the reef from “poor” to “very poor.” Also that month, an official review of water quality along inshore reefs found conditions had failed to improve.

State of the reef

In 2017, the world heritage committee asked for Australia to submit a detailed report on the state of the reef before 1 December, which should include progress on water-quality targets. Earlier this month, environment ministers sent that report, which UNESCO is expected to make public in the coming days. At the time, the Queensland Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, said her government’s newly-enacted farm pollution laws “along with other efforts including tree clearing laws and action on climate change” would “prevent it from being listed by the world heritage committee as in-danger next year.” The committee will review the reef again at its annual meeting, to be held in China in June next year.

Reef in danger?

The World Heritage Committee resisted pressure to put the reef on its “in danger” list in 2015 after the Queensland and Federal Government tabled its Reef 2050 plan, which set targets to improve water quality along the 2,300-kilometre reef. The last time the Great Barrier Reef was reviewed by UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee said it “strongly encourages” Australia to “accelerate efforts” to meet the Reef 2050 plan’s targets “in particular regarding water quality.” The report from WWF-Australia and AMCS also said extra funding should be given to enforcing water quality laws. A reforestation programme should be introduced along riverbanks and other landscapes to reduce run-off into waterways that flow into the reef. Leck said the Reef 2050 plan was an “excellent” response, but added, “It had one major flaw. It did not include climate change. Given what’s happened to the reef in the subsequent years, that is now a gaping hole. The next 2050 plan has to incorporate what the federal and Queensland government has recognised. A reef-safe strategy has to be 1.5C compatible. The Australian government clearly acknowledges the reef’s greatest threat is climate change. It’s a no-brainer that we need a climate policy consistent with the reef’s survival.”

Imogen Zethoven, AMCS director of strategy, said that to avoid a possible “in danger” listing, the Australian Government needed to rapidly reduce emissions, transition to renewable energy and accelerate efforts to address local threats. In a 2017 review of the government’s climate change policies, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority wrote, “To ensure a future for the Great Barrier Reef (i.e., as a functioning reef ecosystem), the latest science indicates the stronger position in the Paris agreement to restrict the increase to 1.5C (or ideally less) above pre-industrial is essential.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that even at 1.5C of warming, coral reefs around the world would decline by 70 to 90%. At 2C, coral reefs would all but disappear. The World Heritage Committee has been slow to produce a new policy that would outline how it plans to incorporate climate change impacts into its decision making. In July, the Australian Government told a World Heritage meeting that climate change threats on individual sites should not be used to justify “in danger” listings. Stephen Oxley, from the Environment and Energy Department, told the committee, Australia was disappointed the policy had not been finalised. However, the department told Guardian Australia its intervention was unrelated to the reef’s assessment at the 2020 meeting.

Credit: Graham Readfearn for The Guardian, 28 November 2019.