The central aim of the government’s plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef is no longer achievable due to the dramatic impacts of climate change, experts have told the government’s advisory committees for the plan. Environmental lawyers said the revelation could mean the Great Barrier Reef might finally be listed as a “world heritage site in danger”, a move the federal and Queensland governments have strenuously fought.
The federal and Queensland government’s Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan was released in 2015, with it’s central vision to “ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to improve on its outstanding universal values”. The plan was created to satisfy the Unesco World Heritage Centre, which was considering adding the Great Barrier Reef to its list of world heritage sites in danger, that its condition could be improved.
But in a meeting of the Reef 2050 advisory committee, whose role is to provide advice to state and federal environment ministers on implementing the plan, two experts from government science agencies said improving the natural heritage values of the reef was no longer possible. With climate change causing unprecedented back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, killing almost half of the coral, and with the risk of those events set to increase in the coming years, loss of coral cover and biodiversity was virtually assured.
The experts told the meeting the plan should be revised to aim for something more achievable, suggesting it could aim to “maintain the ecological function” of the reef, while accepting that its overall health would inevitably decline. The Great Barrier Reef serves many “ecological functions”. For example, the coral provides shelter and food for fish, it provides fish for humans, the various ecosystems provide experiences for tourists, and the reef structure itself provides protection to the coast from waves. A spokeswoman for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, where one of the presenters was based, said: “The concept of ‘maintaining ecological function’ refers to the balance of ecological processes necessary for the reef ecosystem as a whole to persist, but perhaps in a different form, noting the composition and structure may differ from what is currently seen today.”
Members of the advisory committee would only speak on the condition of anonymity, but several told the Guardian about the details of the discussion. The view presented reflects that previously expressed by a group of scientists who called themselves the Great Barrier Reef Independent Review Group, some of whom sit on Reef 2050 advisory committees. In their review of the plan’s implementation, published in February, they said improving the heritage values of the reef, as it aimed to, was “no longer attainable for at least the next two decades”. That assessment was made before the latest mass bleaching.
The language was echoed in a communique from the Independent Expert Panel – another body advising on the implementation of the Reef 2050 plan – dated 5 May. The communique said: “There is great concern about the future of the reef, and the communities and businesses that depend on it, but hope still remains for maintaining ecological function over the coming decades.” It continued: “Members agreed that in our lifetime and on our watch, substantial areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding ecosystems are experiencing major long-term damage which may be irreversible unless action is taken now.”
Both advisory bodies have recommended that the Reef 2050 plan must address climate change, the biggest threat to the reef, which it does not. Brendan Sydes, a lawyer and CEO at Environmental Justice Australia, said the news should be a wake-up call, and could result in the reef being considered again by Unesco for inclusion on the in-danger list. “There’s a real risk that this new information will cause a renewed scrutiny for what Australia is or is not doing to protect the reef – particularly around climate change,” Sydes said, adding that if the outstanding universal values continued to degrade, the very listing of the reef as a world heritage site at all could come into question. “That would be a tragic situation.”
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who sits on the Independent Expert Panel, declined to comment on discussions in the meetings. But he said the shock of what had happened in the past two years had made people reassess what was possible. “We’re managing reefs in a rapidly changing world,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. “So managing to restore the reefs of the past – the way they were prior to the big insults of the 80s, 90s and 2000s … maybe we need to be looking at this in a different sense. What are the key ecological functions? Essentially, what roles do they play that are important to humans?”. He said that idea had a similar “cold hard light of day” feel to his own “50 reefs” project, which aims to identify 50 reefs around the world that have the best chance of being saved – and which could one day potentially help repopulate other reefs.
Despite the advice, the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, and the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles, told the Guardian they remained committed to the aims of the Reef 2050 plan. Frydenberg said: “The Turnbull government is firmly committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef for future generations and delivering the Reef 2050 plan. “The government has been clear from the outset that the Paris Climate Agreement is the place to deal with climate change.”
Miles said the purpose of the Reef 2050 plan was to “boost the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef, including in the face of climate change”. Miles said the plan was intended to be reviewed, and the opportunity to do that would come in 2018. But he also criticised the lack of action from the federal action on climate change. “Australia doesn’t currently have a policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and we need one,” he said. “For the sake of our reef, it’s time Malcolm Turnbull took his commitments from Paris seriously and introduced a real plan that will cap and reduce carbon pollution.”
Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said: “Two years after the World Heritage Committee endorsed the Reef 2050 plan, the federal government appears to have conceded that the plan’s vision is unachievable. “Climate change is the single biggest threat to our reef. Yet the government is aggressively backing the reef-wrecking Adani coalmine and its climate policies are shameful.”
Richard Leck, a campaigner at WWF, said the recent bleaching events, as well as Cyclone Debbie, showed that “the Great Barrier Reef is a system in crisis”. “And the elephant in the room, that is not included in the plan, and Australia is not performing well on, is climate change,” Leck said. “Until Australia gets serious about playing its part in limiting emissions to 1.5C temperature rise, we are not taking saving the reef seriously.”
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