The Australian government needs to do more to help conserve one of the world’s most special natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef.
Unesco has expressed “serious concern” about the impact of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and warned Australia it will not meet the targets of the Reef 2050 plan without considerable work to improve water quality.
The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan provides an overarching strategy for management of the Great Barrier Reef. According to the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy, the plan outlines “concrete management measures for the next 35 years to ensure the outstanding universal value of the Reef is preserved now and for generations to come.”
However, there has been back-to-back coral bleaching events affecting about two-thirds of the reef and the latest data shows a sharp decline in coral cover in the north.
The Unesco report did acknowledge that the Australian and Queensland governments had made attempts to implement the Reef 2050 plan that included establishing a $1.28bn investment strategy, most of which will be spent on improving water quality. Yet John Brodie, a leading expert on the Reef’s water quality, said meeting the water quality targets would require investment of $10bn over the next 10 years.
Unesco “strongly encouraged” the Australian government to “accelerate efforts to ensure meeting the immediate and long-term targets of the plan, which are essential to the overall resilience of the property, in particular regarding water quality”.
The strategy should involve transitioning farmland in the Great Barrier Reef catchment from sugar cane plantations, which use fertilisers that cause much of the water pollution in the Reef, to a less high-intensity form of agriculture, such as grazing.
“There’s things that could be done for the water quality but it’s hard to see this government doing them,” Brodie has stated. “The federal government is unfortunately just writing the Great Barrier Reef off. Other things are more important to them, like the support of farmers in Queensland, and the coal industry.”
Richard Leck, oceans campaigner for the World Wildlife Fund, said that while the impacts of water quality and land clearing on the health of the Reef were significant, climate change remained the major threat.
Although Australia is committed to the Paris Agreement, “we need to have climate policies that will actually protect the Reef and currently our climate policies are nowhere near sufficient to get the action required to save the Reef,” Leck stated.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society seconded that concern, and called on the Queensland government to immediately introduce land clearing laws, scrapped under the Newman government, to reduce the amount of runoff flowing into the Reef’s catchment.
The Australian government must stop ignoring the critical condition of the Great Barrier Reef. This may be difficult to overcome, given every reference to Australia was scrubbed from a major UN report on climate change in 2016 after the Australian government intervened, objecting that the information could harm tourism.
The quality of water flowing into the reef is directly under the control of existing Australian legislation. Improving water quality cannot prevent future bleaching events, but it can improve the capacity of the reef to recover.