The Great Barrier Reef is in danger.
That’s the expert recommendation from a Reactive Monitoring Mission to UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization – conducted in March 2022.
Multiple attempts to add the Reef to the world heritage ‘in danger’ list have been avoided previously, most recently in 2021 due to intense lobbying by the Australian government.
Despite avoiding a formal ‘inscription’ onto the List of World Heritage in Danger then, the findings outlined in this new joint report by scientists from the World Heritage Centre (WHC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points to a dire situation in a reef beset by regular coral bleaching event, ocean heatwaves and changes in biodiversity.
Broader climate change outlooks predict annual mass bleaching events within twenty years, as well as increasing ocean acidification, and the WHC/IUCN report makes 22 recommendations it believes could “ensure and advance the conservation [of the reef] and its outstanding universal value for future generations”.
Among high priority recommendations related to on-shore agricultural and water management practices, vegetation protection and water quality management, it calls for an end to destructive gill net fishing in the reef, strengthening legal protections for land vegetation in nearby catchments, and strength the existing reef plan with clear commitments to cut carbon emissions “consistent with the efforts required to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.
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UNESCO evaluation critical of Australia strategy
The decision to formally inscribe the reef on the world heritage “in danger” list can only be made by UNESCO’s world heritage committee, which is next due to convene in 2023.
The current environment minister Tanya Plibersek and special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef Nita Green emphasised this point in their joint statement addressing the report, released on Tuesday.
But while the report is not capable of enforcing a formal ‘in danger’ listing, it nevertheless is a confronting scientific assessment that effectively confirms the reef’s grim outlook.
The report submitted to UNESCO by the former Australian government in February this year emphasised its commitments to improving water quality, and the focus of the responding to climate change, and helping communities, industries and ecosystems adapt to the climate challenge.
But the WHC/IUCN mission found that while state and federal governments had, at the time, ramped up climate mitigation efforts, plans lacked detail or clear pathways on how net zero targets would be achieved.
The mission report was prepared prior to the change of government that has since resulted in a legislated carbon reduction target. Even so, the report emphasises the need for accelerated implementation of measures in the existing plan.
“We’re barrelling towards warming scenarios that are going to be devastating for 99% of reefs worldwide, let alone our prized and iconic Great Barrier Reef,” James Cook University professor in marine biology Jodie Rummer told Cosmos.
Rummer, like many reef scientists, has spent years studying the changing face of the region.
As well as the impacts of warming global temperatures, Rummer says the secondary and tertiary stressors highlighted in the report are also critical to address, but doing so are band-aids trying to stem the ongoing bleed of the region due to climate change.
“Water quality, land use, coastal development: these are added stressors that, on top of the number one stressor that the reef is facing, which is warming due to climate change, are just making things worse.
“Even though it seems like we can do them in a short period of time without addressing the number one threat, it’s not getting us where we need to go. We need to be reducing emissions this decade, substantially and rapidly.”
Mismatch between state and federal levels
Earlier this week, Queensland’s premier Annastacia Palaszczuk declared her state would cut carbon emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade and meet 70% of statewide energy demand from renewables in the next 10 years.
It’s the lowest carbon reduction target of any of Australia’s states and territories, except for Western Australia and the Northern Territory (which have no target).
She also affirmed Queensland’s commitment to coal mining, saying exports would continue “as long as the market dictates”.
The UN, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency have all emphasised the need to end coal mining and energy use to curb global warming in line with Paris Agreement targets.
Queensland, which is the Australian state responsible for the Great Barrier Reef, is also the most vulnerable to climate change effects.
Independent economic assessments by climate risk assessor XDI named Queensland as the state with the highest climate risk to built environments. A Climate Council report based on analysis from Climate Valuation found 6.5% of properties – the highest in the nation – would uninsurable due to climate change impacts.
Rummer says that Queensland’s approach to a demand-driven coal industry was at odds with more aspirational policies set around the country.
“That’s not in line with what we’ve said, as a nation, we’re going to do, and what we’ve committed to do to reduce our emissions,” Rummer says.
“So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the Queensland government is saying, as the primary stewards of the Great Barrier Reef and what we’re seeing at a national level.
“We have a global icon that we are custodians of, as a World Heritage Site, and frankly, we’re not taking care of it.”
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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