News out this week that research has found the Great Barrier Reef has lost much of its coral cover in the past few decades generated the now routine commitment from federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to do better. The reality is that the reef’s future looks grim.

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science found a major decline in coral cover from 1985 to 2012, with tropical cyclones accounting for 48% of the loss, predation by crown-of-thorns starfish 42%, and bleaching due to climate change 10%.

All these drivers of coral loss have human fingerprints on them. Cyclone intensities are increasing with warming ocean temperatures driven by human-induced climate change. There is strong evidence linking crown-of-thorns starfish to increased nutrient run-off from high fertiliser use in the reef’s catchment.

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While climate change is not the major driver of coral loss at present, it can be expected to dominate  if we continue on our current course. No one likes to say it out loud, but we should publicly recognise that we are planning to destroy the Great Barrier Reef by setting targets for climate change that we know are inadequate to protect the reef.

If we look at the big picture, our lack of serious ambition to protect the reef from climate change will swamp the many good things we are doing to protect it by increasing fully protected areas, reducing fishing pressure, improving water quality, etc.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has previously committed to protecting the reef, but not at the expense of economic development. His priorities are clear with the recognition that “we are in the coal business”. This is contradictory. The emissions from Queensland coal and coal seam gas are major parts of the threat to the reef on a global scale.

Ultimately, the protection of the reef is a national matter, and the state government is just a noisy spectator. Only the Australian Government has the power to address the threat of climate change by driving national and international change. At present it is failing to do this.

Our de facto national plan to destroy the reef is a simple one on the surface: the Gillard government and the opposition currently propose to reduce Australia’s direct greenhouse gas emissions by 5% by 2020. Both give the green light to massive expansion of Australia’s coal and gas industries, fuelling increasing global consumption.

The 5% by 2020 target is based on Australia contributing to a global regime to stabilise carbon dioxide around 550 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, thereby allowing mean global temperature rises of 3° above pre-industrial levels. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are currently around 392 ppm and rising by 2 ppm a year, mainly due to emissions from humans burning fossil fuels.

 Three different scenarios showing how coral reefs are expected to respond to global warming (temperature rise indicated in degrees centigrade), related to atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (figures given in parts per million, ppm). On current emissions, the Great Barrier Reef is heading for the picture on the right (Hoegh-Guldberg/Science).

The reef would be destroyed if CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rise to 550 ppm and global temperatures rise by 3°. The impacts on coral reefs will be severe even if we stabilise at 450 ppm and limit global temperature rises to 2° — the most ambitious goal that the Gillard government even considers.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland is one of the world’s leading experts on the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on coral reefs. He says bluntly that if we allow mean global temperature rises above 2°, “any semblance of reefs to the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park today would vanish”.

This means that the Gillard government and the opposition are proposing targets that, if achieved, would lead to the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Our de facto plan is to destroy the reef.

Good intentions to protect the reef from climate change are not enough. We should own-up to the likely consequences of our current policies. Our current ostrich approach of simply ignoring the impacts scientists believe will occur to the reef is cowardly.

We must also improve the management of other pressures on the reef. Water pollution from the catchment and damage from the proposed expansion of major ports stand out.

There is no simple change in government or new legislation that would solve these problems. The threats to the reef involve millions of activities from farms to coal-fired power stations operating at different scales; no single level of government can address them all. Cooperation is essential, yet the relationship between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments often appears antagonistic (see the recent kerfuffle over the Alpha Coal Mine).

The threats to the reef are difficult to manage, complex, and often technical, and may involve activities spanning decades that cause severe, cumulative impacts with long-term effects. It is not enough to simply manage the reef in isolation from its adjacent catchment or the global atmosphere.

For threats such as water pollution from the adjacent catchment, local, state and federal government agencies require the technical and administrative capability, including sufficient record keeping, to deal with thousands of agricultural and industrial sites across an enormous geographic area. This is no doubt made more difficult by the recent major cut backs in Queensland government staff.

*Dr Chris McGrath is a lecturer in environmental regulation at the University of Queensland

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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