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New government measures to preserve the Great Barrier Reef are more about protecting the ‘brand’ than admitting any environmental mismanagement. By Mike Seccombe.

Govt acts to reassure World Heritage committee on Reef

Fifty per cent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has disappeared since 1975.
Credit: ALAMY

Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s great protector of the environment. His government protected Uluru and Kakadu, it stopped Australian whaling, it stopped sandmining on Fraser Island.

But perhaps Fraser’s proudest achievement was the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Back in 1979, the benighted Queensland government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen was intent on allowing oil drilling on the reef. Fraser banned drilling. Two years later, he saw the reef inscribed as Australia’s first entry on the World Heritage List.

The reef park is the largest World Heritage Area on the planet, and one of only a handful that meets every one of the major criteria for inclusion on the list.

That’s mostly Fraser’s legacy.

It was poignant then that last Saturday, the day after the big man died, Tony Abbott held a press conference on Hamilton Island to belatedly announce measures to try to save a dying reef.

Decades of pollution from fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, sediments from land clearing and dredging, overfishing, ever increasing shipping, and above all climate change, have combined to see 50 per cent of the reef’s coral disappear in the 30 years since Malcolm Fraser became prime minister.

The scientific facts make action necessary, but they were not the catalyst for the visit to Hamilton Island by Abbott and his environment minister Greg Hunt.

The direct stimulus for their appearance and the production of the optimistically entitled Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan was the World Heritage committee to which Fraser signed up Australia all those years ago.

At its meeting beginning on June 28 in Bonn, Germany, the committee will decide whether the Great Barrier Reef has become so degraded as to justify a declaration that it is in danger of losing the “outstanding universal values” that made it worthy of listing.

And that prospect strikes fear into the wallets of the government. As George Christensen, the National Party MP who holds the north Queensland federal seat of Dawson, told parliament on Wednesday: “A label of ‘in danger’ would do enormous damage to the brand of the reef and threaten millions of tourism dollars. It would also threaten major investments in my region.” 

Christensen’s far-right pronouncements on many issues, from Islam to homosexuality to climate change, which he considers to be “science fiction”, are highly contentious. But he was right about that one.

A World Heritage committee finding that the reef was in danger would be an economic disaster for Australia and for the economically depressed north Queensland economy in particular.

According to a 2013 report for the government by Deloitte Access Economics, the dollar value of the reef was $6.4 billion in 2012 in direct expenditure terms, or $5.2 billion in value-added terms. More than 90 per cent of that money came through tourism, which employed almost 65,000 people.

And that money, those jobs, would be at risk if the World Heritage committee went against them. 

So the Hamilton Island announcement by Abbott, his environment minister Greg Hunt and their Queensland government counterparts, was all about persuading the World Heritage committee that they were serious about caring for the reef. A promise of $100 million in federal funding was added for good measure.

“The plan categorically addresses the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s concerns through identified actions, targets, objectives and outcomes…” said a press release that accompanied the announcement.

The headline announcement went to one of those concerns. Henceforth, there would be a ban on the dumping of spoil from dredging associated with new port developments.

This was quite a turnaround. Only a matter of months ago the state and federal governments were staunchly defending the practice.

In particular, they were defending the proposal, signed off by Hunt in December 2013, to permit the dumping of millions of tonnes of material from the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port near Bowen in the marine park.

Then, Hunt earnestly assured us that after “a very careful and deep review” he saw no ecological danger in taking three million cubic metres of “clean, sand-based material a short distance” and depositing it on top of “other clean, sand-based material”.

It wasn’t as though the scientific advice had changed. Almost all Australia’s marine scientists, including most of those at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which ticked off on the plan, were opposed from the beginning.

What did change was the government’s understanding of the politics relating to that science. Its previous approach of ignoring and, in some cases, like that of the marine park authority, cutting funding for inconvenient scientific endeavour, was not fooling the World Heritage committee.

At its meeting last July, the heritage committee noted the government’s submission on the reef and its management was contradicted by “many contrasting reports from other sources”.

It made numerous criticisms. It expressed concern about the approval processes for coastal development in general and “regret” about the Abbot Point dumping in particular. It was critical, too, of the federal government’s move to devolve the environmental assessment processes to the states.

The committee rejected the government’s submission and asked that it be redone for consideration this year. It warned that unless it was satisfied, the reef would be inscribed “on the List of World Heritage in danger”.

Hence the government’s urgency about producing its Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan. 

A draft plan released last year was not received well. The response of the Australian Academy of Science, a body made up of 476 of the nation’s most eminent scientists, was typical of the reaction of scientific and conservation organisations.

It damned the plan as “inadequate to achieve the goal of restoring or even maintaining the diminished Outstanding Universal Value of the reef”.

The revised plan released last Friday is in some ways worse, according to the academy. It complains that an appendix to the draft, which provided the most accurate picture of the reef’s decline, “has inexplicably been deleted from the final plan”. That appendix showed 24 out of 41 values that go toward determining outstanding universal value for the reef had been “assessed by the Australian government as deteriorating”. Of those 24, 10 already were in poor condition.

The academy makes many other criticisms. It notes funding cuts to science agencies concerned with reef health: the marine park authority, the CSIRO and the Australian Research Council. It laments the government’s abandonment of a meaningful strategy for dealing with climate change. It condemns the environmental impact assessment process – which the Abbott government is intent on handing over largely to the states – as “badly broken”. It says that while water-quality targets have improved from the draft plan, “they remain too low to produce biologically significant outcomes, and remain above international guidelines”.

And it notes that while the government has now banned the dumping of dredge spoil in the reef, it has done nothing to reduce dredging, which it says is “projected to grow strongly”.

“All in all,” says Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council centre of excellence for coral reef studies at James Cook University and a fellow of the Academy of Science, “the final plan remains seriously deficient.”

He elaborates on other concerns, such as funding arrangements for the government’s newly established reef trust, which will raise money through “offsets” – effectively payments made by developers including fossil fuel companies as compensation for their activities.

“I think that is perverse because by its nature an offset is an outcome of permitted damage.”

He also questions how much of Abbott’s promised $100 million – and a matching amount from the Queensland government – is new money.

There are, of course, welcome initiatives in the plan. Hughes notes in particular the targets for cutting the amounts of fertiliser and pesticide entering reef waters (50 and 60 per cent respectively by 2018) and the plans to improve riparian vegetation and wetlands to limit sediment runoff.

These sources of pollution have historically been the major factors that have devastated the southern two-thirds of the reef, particularly close to shore.

But for the biggest current and future threat to the reef – climate change – there is no target.

“The government itself, in the preamble to the plan, says climate change is the greatest problem, and then it proceeds to do nothing at all about it,” says Hughes. “There is no mention of the development of renewable energy between now and 2050.”

Science has shown that coral reefs are the canary in the coalmine for climate change. They are highly vulnerable to increased acidification of the oceans, damage from more intense storms and increasing water temperatures.

Says Hughes: “The average temperature on the reef has gone up by close to one degree over 30 years, which doesn’t sound a lot but a spike of more than a couple of degrees is enough to bleach and ultimately kill the coral. This is not a potential problem of the future. The reef has already bleached badly twice, in 1998 and 2004. These events are going to become more common.”

It is an irony of nature that the world’s largest coral reef exists adjacent to some of the worlds largest coal deposits. The most climate change-sensitive of ecosystems exists side by side with the dirtiest source of greenhouse gases.

“The fundamental question is, can we maintain a healthy Great Barrier Reef and operate the largest coalmines in the world, serviced by some of the biggest coal ports in the world?” says Hughes. “I think the answer to that is no.” 

Australia’s two major political parties think otherwise. They continue to believe they can sustain both the mines and the reef, and the billions of dollars both generate.

The science, however, suggests that is not an option. We can have one or the other. Or quite likely, given the indications for the long-term future of both the reef and the coal industry, neither.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2015 as "Unsound barrier". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.