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The New Plan to Save the Reef Focuses on Water Quality and Not Climate Change

Which is why many experts think it won't work.
April 2, 2015, 1:25am

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The federal and Queensland state governments have released their long-term plan to save the Great Barrier Reef. The outline aims to ensure it "continues to improve on its Outstanding Universal Value every decade between now and 2050". But many experts have panned the report saying it does nothing to address the imminent threat posed by climate change and is merely aimed at preventing the reef being listed as endangered on UNESCO's world heritage list. It's believed such a listing would have devastating effects on the region's tourism industry.

For its part, the government insists it's doing what it can with the money available. The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan sets targets in terms of pollution in the area, aiming to reduce nitrogen levels by 80 percent and sediment by 50 percent. It focuses heavily on improving the water quality, with the Queensland government to provide $100 million over five years, and the federal government chipping in $200 million.

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The plan also includes a permanent ban on the disposal of material in the Marine Park from capital dredging projects and restricts dredging for the development of new or existing port facilities. Both of these inclusions comprise a reversal of previous policy, with large-scale dredging and dumping projects being proposed as recently as last year. "It responds to the challenges facing the reef and presents actions to protect its values, health, and resilience while allowing ecologically sustainable development and use," the report reads.

Despite these efforts, experts claim the 2050 plan fails to tackle the main threat to the Great Barrier Reef: climate change. It's mentioned early on in the report, but little is presented to combat it. The authors acknowledged that climate change is the "single biggest threat to coral reefs worldwide", but Professor Iain McCalman from the University of Sydney, and the author of a book on the history of the Reef, says the report completely misses the point.

"They're on the one hand talking about mitigating the problem with water, and yet they're expanding coal ports, which will require further dredging which creates coral disease and kicks up a great deal of sediment," he told VICE. "Then there's the further irony that the coal will in turn be burned, exacerbating the serious problem that isn't being addressed at all, the problem being created by climate change."

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In a recent interview with VICE, Queensland Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef Steven Miles insisted they are doing what they can to protect the reef with the limited money they have. "Scientists are telling us that climate change is the big long-term threat, but water quality is the initial problem," he said. "Clearly the Queensland government won't be the ones to solve climate change, but we can change water quality."

Despite these reassurances, many are concerned about the long-term plans, and say they don't go far enough in addressing the multitude of issues the Reef is facing. "The plan is a road to destruction rather than recovery," says Greenpeace reef campaigner Shani Tager, adding, "It's quite remarkable how the plan recognises that climate change is the biggest threat facing the reef, and then proceeds to not do anything about it".

The report comes as UNESCO is considering whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" in June this year. According to coral and reef expert and former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Charlie Veron, this is the sole purpose of the new plan. "The whole thing is designed to stop UNESCO listing the Reef as an endangered area," he said. "That's the only aim of it, it has no basis in science whatsoever."

The report's claims that it has gone further than the recommendations passed on by the World Heritage Committee last year suggests the government is at least aware of the impending decision.

Tager agreed, saying the government has its priorities wrong. "They're definitely a lot more concerned about making it look like they're protecting the Reef rather than actually protecting the Reef," she said.

Professor McCalman told VICE that the issues facing the Great Barrier Reef are so severe that drastic action needs to be taken. "If they're talking about 2060, by 2050 there won't be a coral reef irrespective of what they do with the water quality."

However, there's one thing that the experts, campaigners, and politicians agree on: the Reef is too important to lose. "The stakes are high. Something like $60 billion of our economy is reliant on the reef, something like 67,000 jobs," Minister Miles said. "So we absolutely need to win."

Follow Denham on Twitter: @denhamsadler