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. 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.