Australia has downgraded the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef to “very poor” for the first time, highlighting a fierce battle between environmental campaigners and the government over the country’s approach to climate change.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a government agency, warned that immediate local and global action was needed to save the world heritage protected structure from further damage due to the escalating effects of climate change.
“The window of opportunity to improve the Reef’s long-term future is now. Strong and effective management actions are urgent at global, regional and local scales,” it said in a report published every five years.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living structure and has become a potent symbol of the damage wrought by climate change.
The deterioration of the outlook for the reef to “very poor” from “poor” five years ago prompted a plea from conservation groups for the Liberal-National coalition government to move decisively to cut greenhouse gas emissions and phase out the country’s reliance on coal.
Emissions have risen every year in Australia since 2015, when the country became the first in the world to axe a national carbon tax.
The World Wide Fund For Nature warned the downgrade could also prompt Unesco to place the area on its list of world heritage sites in danger – a move that could hit the A$6.4 billion (€3.9 billion) economic contribution the reef makes through tourism.
"Australia can continue to fail on climate policy and remain a major coal exporter or Australia can turn around the Reef's decline. But it can't do both," said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF-Australia. "That's clear from the government's own scientific reports."
The government said it was taking meaningful action to reduce emissions and meet its 2030 commitments under the Paris Agreement and criticised activists, who have claimed the reef is already dead.
"A fortnight ago I was on the reef, not with climate sceptics but with scientists," Sussan Ley, Australia's environment minister, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. "Their advice was clear: the Reef isn't dead. It has vast areas of vibrant coral and teeming sea life, just as it has areas that have been damaged by coral bleaching, illegal fishing and crown of thorns [starfish] outbreaks."
The government report warned record breaking sea temperatures, poor water quality and climate change have caused the continued degradation of the reef’s overall health. It said coral habitats had transitioned from “poor” to “very poor” due to mass bleaching event. The report added that concern for the condition of the thousands of species of plants and animals that depend on the reef was “high”.
Global warming has resulted in a fivefold increase in the frequency of severe coral bleaching events in the past four decades and slowed the rate of coral recovery. Successive mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 caused unprecedented levels of adult coral mortality, which reduced new coral growth by 90 per cent in 2018, said the report. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019