Experts demand new Great Barrier Reef plan

By AAP 7 August 2023
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Australia’s plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef won’t cut it in the era of climate change and another approach is urgently needed, an expert panel says.

Independent scientists who advise the federal and Queensland governments on the existing Reef 2050 Plan say a radical shift is needed to help the World Heritage site.

“Management of the (reef) will need to change; it cannot be business as usual; it cannot be the priorities and investments outlined today; it cannot be spending money because that is where it is spent today,” the governments were told.

Panel chair and former Australian chief scientist Ian Chubb said existing approaches weren’t flexible enough to cope with the pace of global warming and he warned of difficult choices ahead.

“Decision-making for conservation and sustainable use of the (reef) will need to be more selective and questions need to be asked, such as which region/s should be the focus of attention – which reefs, which corals, which species, which ecosystems?” Prof Chubb wrote.

The Australian Academy of Science expressed similar concerns in a report published on Thursday.

It said potentially irreversible climate impacts were likely for the reef by about 2050, even if emissions stabilised.

“Currently, policy is taking time to catch up,” the academy said after being asked by the government to provide advice to the panel.

“The speed of intervention will likely increase and regulators need to be able to keep pace.”

The academy also noted “a lack of political will to implement the regulations and laws allows upstream activities that are in opposition to the intent of existing laws, ultimately negatively impacting the (reef)”.

The Australian Academy of Science says potentially irreversible climate impacts were likely for the reef by about 2050, even if emissions stabilised. Image credit: shutterstock

Prof Chubb warned a climate lag of about 40 years meant the impacts of still-rising greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t be felt for decades.

But he said there was still an opportunity to influence the trajectory of change by managing other threats, including water quality and coastal development.

The advice comes in the same week Australia was given more time to ward off an in-danger listing for the reef.

UN scientific advisers recommended the reef not be listed as a World Heritage site in danger, but they warned it remained under serious threat from climate change and water pollution.

The World Heritage Committee is expected to formally accept that recommendation, but Australia will have to provide an update next year.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the expert panel’s advice would help shape reef protection plans.

Her Queensland counterpart, Leanne Linard, pointed to her government’s efforts to cut emissions and address water quality.

Conservation groups urged both governments to focus on the actions UNESCO has been articulating for years, including more ambitious climate change action and halting deforestation in reef catchments.

“The Australian and Queensland governments know what needs to be done,” WWF-Australia head of oceans Richard Leck said.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society said the priority must be achieving the goals in the Reef 2050 plan.

“It has some really good actions in it,” reef campaigner Lissa Schindler said.

“The problem is they’re not being implemented. 

“They’ve got a goal of having no net loss in riparian areas … but the latest report shows 2000 hectares of that was cleared.”

Related: What it will take to rescue the Great Barrier Reef