The Great Barrier Reef – what does a new Labor government mean for its future?

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1981, and with good reason – it’s the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms. It’s an Australian icon intrinsically tied to our national identity, but the reef is in danger due to the effects of climate change.

Just this past summer it experienced its fourth mass-bleaching event in seven years, with 91% of the reef experiencing some level of bleaching according to the summer 2021-22 Reef Snapshot report.

Every Federal election, the Great Barrier Reef becomes a bit of a poster child for climate change, but what does the recent change in government actually mean for its future? The Labor government’s climate policies are more ambitious than those of the Coalition, but will it be enough to save the reef from devastation? Are we finally taking steps in the right direction?

Climate change and its impact on the reef

The effects of climate change are being felt majorly by the Great Barrier Reef already. Especially apparent are the mass coral-bleaching events caused by increasing ocean temperatures as a result of global warming.

“Corals can (and frequently do) recover from bleaching, but just like forest recovery after a bushfire, they need time, and the speed of the recovery can vary depending on the severity of the heatwave and the types of corals growing on the reef,” explains Dr Emma Kennedy, a research scientist in Coral Reef Ecology at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

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Average bleaching scores of coral in the Great Barrier Reef 2022 aerial survey. Credit: Reef snapshot report: summer 2021-22

But according to Dr Jodie Rummer, associate professor at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, these events are only going to become more frequent.

“With the trajectory that we’re on right now, what we’ll seeing by even the year 2044 is annual mass-bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs worldwide,” she says. “Even our more robust coral species require eight to 10 years to fully recover from these repeated heat waves.

“We’re just losing that window of recovery for not only the coral reef and the coral organisms, but also all the other organisms that the coral reef supports.”

Current greenhouse gas emissions trajectories indicate that globally we’re tracking towards an increase in global temperatures approaching 3°C above pre-industrial levels, by 2100.

This is incompatible with healthy, thriving reefs. If warming exceeds 1.5°C  “we would lose the reef altogether,” warns Rummer.

Labor’s Great Barrier Reef policies

With a new government comes new targets and policies that affect the reef. To start with, let’s look at the funding.

The Labor government has promised to invest almost $1.2 billion in reef preservation and restoration by 2030 – that’s an extra $194.5 million on top of the LNP’s existing $1 billion reef package.

This money will be used to tackle issues such as pollution from agricultural runoff, a more sustainable fishing sector, funding scientific research into thermal-tolerant corals, and funding protection and restoration work by Indigenous ranger organisations.

The government also plans to continue and double the funding of the Reef 2050 Plan, which was initially released in 2015 to address the concerns of the World Heritage Committee.

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Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef during a mass bleaching event in 2017. Credit: Brett Monroe Garner/ Getty Images

“It’s an awful lot of money, but it actually isn’t a lot of money when you think of it like $100 million each year,” says Dr Maxine Newlands, political scientist at James Cook University, Australia. “That’s not very much given the size of the Great Barrier Reef and what needs to be done.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that the electorates that fringe the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland are Liberal seats. It remains to be seen whether there will be any opposition to funds being directed at the Great Barrier Reef – or calls for it to be redirected elsewhere, such as to farming, instead.

But while it’s important to be mindful of these second and tertiary stressors to the reef, and to be acting on them, if we’re not addressing the number-one stressor that the Great Barrier Reef is facing – climate change – we’re not getting to the heart of the problem.

“No more band aids on arterial wounds,” emphasises Rummer.

“So, the money is great,” she adds. “And in terms of research, management and policy, we absolutely need it right now.”

But the ideal is money being allocated toward reducing impacts of climate change – like the triple threat of global warming, ocean acidification and declining ocean oxygen levels.

Emissions reductions targets must be increased

Speaking of the reef’s number-one stressor, the outcome of this election has started Australia moving towards more action on climate change.

The Labor government’s energy plan includes a target of a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, which is far more ambitious than the previous 26% to 28% target set by the Coalition. The previous government’s policies were consistent with 3˚C of warming, whilst Labor’s policy is consistent with 2˚C, according to a report by Climate Analytics.

It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but not enough to ensure the survival of the reef. Instead, the Greens’ target of a 74% emissions reduction, and teal independents’ targets of a 60% reduction, are consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

With an unprecedented number of Greens candidates and the “teal wave” of independents elected into the crossbench, it’s a sign of shifting public sentiment.

“It’s put a bit of a magnifying glass onto the policies of the two major parties, because while I think climate change is always an issue, it’s become more prominent in this election,” says Newlands.

According to Newlands, the presence of these climate-forward members is likely to “either expedite the current target of net zero by 2050, or at least have that conversation of ‘well, that’s not enough but what is?’

“Having those independents in will keep climate change on the political agenda. So, it puts pressure on particularly Labor, but Liberals as well, to address that.”

The 2020s are a critical decade for climate and we’re already two years in. But we have the opportunity to catalyse action on climate change and take the necessary steps to ensure the continued survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

“No other developed country in the world has more to lose from inaction on climate change than we do,” says Rummer. “But we also have the most to gain.

“It’s important to look forward into the future with a lot of optimism.”

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