Great Barrier Reef authority urges ‘fastest possible action’ on emissions
The federal agency that manages the Great Barrier Reef has made an unprecedented call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, warning only the “strongest and fastest possible action” will reduce the risks to the natural wonder.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has published a climate position statement that says the reef is already damaged from warming oceans and it is “critical” global temperature rises remain within 1.5 degrees.
The Coalition government has been criticised for overseeing four straight years of increases in national emissions and experts say it will not meet the country’s Paris target under current climate policy.
“Only the strongest and fastest possible action on climate change will reduce the risks and limit the impacts of climate change on the reef,” the authority said. “Further loss of coral is inevitable and can be minimised by limiting global temperature increase to the maximum extent possible.”
The climate statement was in development for more than a year and published late on Wednesday.
It says climate change is the single greatest threat to the reef and points to the “widespread impacts” already felt from back to back marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017 that caused the mass wipe-out of corals.
“Of particular concern are projections that the reef could be affected by bleaching events twice per decade by about 2035 and annually by about 2044 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate,” the authority said.
“If bleaching becomes more frequent and more intense, there will not be enough time for reefs to recover and persist as coral-dominated systems in their current form.”
The marine park authority’s statement says the reduction in emissions required for the reef to survive requires both national and international effort and an “urgent and critical” acceleration of policies to cut carbon pollution.
Any further increase in global temperatures will have “further negative impacts” for reef-dependent activities such as tourism, fishing and traditional use.
“These effects are likely to include loss of properties and infrastructure, loss of cultural and regional identity and, unless urgent action is taken, subsequent declines in regional economies,” the authority said.
Environment groups said on Thursday that such a clear statement from the government’s own agency should prompt the Morrison government to act faster to address the climate crisis.
Australia’s emissions have been rising since the repeal of the carbon price.
“The Great Barrier Reef is not dead yet, but the marine park authority makes it clear that it is already under stress from rising temperatures,” Christian Slattery, a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, said.
“As the marine park authority states, any additional increase in temperatures will have further devastating impacts on the reef and flow-on effects for tourism, fishing, recreation and traditional use.
“ACF urges the federal government to listen to the experts and treat this call to action with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.”
Imogen Zethoven, the strategic director at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the government’s $443m grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation would be “wasted unless the Morrison government takes radical action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save our greatest natural icon and the jobs it supports”.
“The prime minister, a former managing director of Tourism Australia, knows how critical the reef is to the tourism industry and to Australia’s international reputation,” she said. “As the caretaker for the reef and a daily witness to its decline, GBRMPA is crying out for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
After the May election, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, named Warren Entsch the special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef.
In an interview, Entsch said he wanted to focus on plastic waste and warned climate activists in northern Queensland had had a negative impact on the region’s economy.
Environment minister Sussan Ley said she accepted accept the scientific advice, “both that climate change is the biggest threat to the reef and that there are actions we can continue to take to build a more resilient reef.”
“The government is taking meaningful action to reduce global emissions and we investing $1.2bn in addressing threats such as water quality, marine litter and the crown of thorns star fish.”
In 2017, Australia avoided an “in danger” listing for the reef from Unesco’s world heritage committee.
But its status will be reassessed by Unesco next year and Australia must submit a state of conservation report to Unesco in December.
An outlook report for the reef from GBRMPA is also due soon.