The remarks by US President Barrack Obama to Brisbane university students concerning the Great Barrier Reef during the G 20 leader’s summit, have been widely interpreted as a rebuke to Australian governments for their lack of urgency in dealing with climate change.
State and federal sensitivity to the issue arises from the imminent vote by the World Heritage Committee to declare the GBR “endangered” and how that could damage the region’s $5.2 billion tourism industry.
So concerned was federal environment Minister Greg Hunt in September that he staged a covert dash to the feet of UNESCO chiefs in Europe to plea that the “endangered” vote be called off.
The mission to Europe was planned “under the radar” to avoid activists being handed an opportunity to sabotage the official campaign to convince UNESCO ambassadors that Australia had undergone an epiphany on dredging and development impacts.
Conservationists argue that governments have – particularly since the emergence of CSG wealth – put infrastructure development well ahead of ecological values. They point to approvals granted for Abbot Point dredging and the expansion of Townsville and Gladstone harbours they claim pose serious threats to the reef.
In its Report on the State of Conservation of the reef presented to the World Heritage Committee in January, Australia glossed over the Abbot Point spoil dumping approvals granted just one of month earlier. It also claimed to have launched an “integrated monitoring program” for Gladstone Harbour.
The WHC was unmoved. In June it issued its own report card on Australia’s unimpressive stewardship of the seventh wonder of the natural world but voted at its Doha meeting to defer its “endangered status” vote until 2015.
It has demanded Australia prepare a further report on its compliance with World Heritage obligations by January 2015 and will meet in February to decide its response.
Approved dredge spoil dumping off Abbot Point appears to have been circumvented by Hunt’s Department pressuring Queensland to “buy” the spoil it already owns – dredged up from the sea floor – rather than allowing it to be dumped in the GBR marine park with all attendant environmental hazards as per the proponents’ existing approvals.
Queensland is “buying” back its dredge spoil for a hastily designed reclamation project. No mention has been made of the price to be paid and the economics of such a decision as opposed to having made the spoil’s return to land a condition of the original dredging consent.
Hunt’s mission – and the rage launched at the US president for having been called out over the reef – demonstrates the alarm suddenly dawning on authorities over the consequences of neglect our greatest natural asset.
Conservationists say that the approvals expose the government’s “develop at any cost” attitude.
Climate change is far from the most serious threat but the issues go well beyond dredge spoil.
The ecological detriment of LNG infrastructure and the multiple mining projects outside the protected area – all irresistible to government because of their economic benefits – are also in the spotlight.
At the heart of the WHC concern and what governments are embarrassed to have openly discussed, is the loss of half the coral along the reef’s 2300km length and the serious degradation of the lower two thirds below Cooktown.
The committee has already reported that “significant loss of coral cover has reduced underwater aesthetic value of inshore reefs in the southern two-thirds” and coral cover is estimated to have declined from 28% to 13.8%.
The GBR covers an area of 348,000 km2 and is comprised of 2,500 individual reefs and over 900 islands.
No other World Heritage property contains its biodiversity of over 1,500 species of fish, 400 corals, 4,000 molluscs, 240 bird species, plus enormous diversity of sponges, anemones and crustaceans.
But with two thirds of its length seriously degraded – no longer resembling its appearance at the time of induction onto the World Heritage Register in 1981 and many sea life species already endangered – the GBR’s world beating status may be toppled if the WHC remains unmoved by Hunt’s frantic manoeuvring.
The #1 mantle would likely then pass to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef shared by Mexico, Belize and Honduras. It is the second largest coral reef system in the world.
Belize’s reef is a 300 km section of the total 900 km length but at just 300 m from shore, it accessibility via a “tinnie” and its spectacular corals and sea life, mean that it too is a natural treasure of global proportions.
Belize’s reef is its top tourist destination, with the “Blue Hole” – a cylindrical cavern 300 m across and 124 m deep that draws divers from across the globe – having its own special protected status.
The volume of sea life on its easily accessible reefs by far exceeds that on the degraded lower two thirds of Australia’s GBR and its underwater and coral cay aesthetic value is at least equivalent to the remaining standout areas to Cooktown’s north.
Australians may prove to be more vocal at losing No 1 bragging rights to a third world nation, than they have so far been to the deterioration of their own natural asset in their own back yard.
Note: this post was edited following the G20 event