“The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger” – David Attenborough
Larger than the Great Wall of China, and the only living thing on earth visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef almost escapes description. Its scintillating beauty, whether photographed, filmed, or for those lucky enough, glimpsed up-close and underwater, is a testament to the vast diversity of life with which we share our planet.
And now we face a future without it.
It probably won’t be news to you that the Reef’s destiny hangs in the balance. Whether it’s reports of the potential impacts of coal mine developments, 2016’s global coral bleaching event, or UNESCO’s admonishment of Australia’s efforts to protect perhaps our best known World Heritage area, there’s a lot to keep up on.
Here’s a rundown of three key recent developments:
Legal challenge to Adani coal mine relaunched
A well-publicised court case, led by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), has sought to challenge a huge coal mining development proposed for Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The basis being that burning coal and climate pollution is inconsistent with international obligations to protect the Reef.
Adani’s Carmichael mine, if built, would be one of the largest coal mines in the world and would release more CO2 emissions annually than Bangladesh with its population of 160 million.
The ACF has argued that then federal environment minister Greg Hunt failed to consider the impact of emissions and climate change on the Reef when making his decision to approve the mine.
Threatened ‘In danger’ listing by UNESCO World Heritage Committee
Coal developments proposed by the Queensland government led to a warning from UNESCO in 2012 that the Reef risked being listed as a World Heritage site ‘in danger’. The UN body urged Australia to reconsider a coal terminal and port developments proposed on the Reef’s doorstep.
UNESCO has been closely monitoring progress since their initial warning, including an official visit to Australia. In 2015, UNESCO decided against listing the Reef, but said it would closely monitor conservation progress over the next four years.
On 26 September, Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad met with UNESCO officials in Paris to discuss how the state government has progressed in protecting the Reef Amendments to tree-clearing laws that failed to pass parliament. The amendments were intended to reduce polluting land and agricultural runoff, one of the major ongoing threats to Reef health. Tree clearing has more than tripled in Queensland in recent years.
UNESCO said the status of this promise to strengthen land-clearing laws would be reflected as “significantly delayed” in future reports on the Reef. The commitment forms part of the Federal and Queensland government’s Reef 2050 plan.
Worst coral bleaching in history
Adding to pressure on the reef from development and pollution, a strong El Niño heralded what is widely regarded as the worst global bleaching event ever recorded in 2016. Ninety-three per cent of the Reef has been affected, with almost a quarter of its coral killed this year alone.
Some scientists believe it may now be too late for the Reef.
Others hold onto hope, but with the cool pragmatism of those who comprehend the scale of the task ahead. As Attenborough has said, “the resilience of the natural world gives you great hope really. Give nature half a chance and it really takes it and works with it. But we are throwing huge problems at it.”
Attenborough has seen first-hand the impact of these problems. The Reef he first visited 60 years ago was a very different place to today, having lost around 50 per cent of its coral cover in the 27 years between 1985 and 2012 alone.
Current efforts are not enough to save the Reef. More needs to be done, and quickly. Climate change is happening faster than predicted, and other human threats to the Reef like pollution and development continue to grow.