UNESCO took a surprising stance on the Great Barrier Reef by stating that the World Heritage site is not in danger, scientists have urged that the reef isn’t out of danger the the coral die offs are actually affecting the communities that depend on them.
The Great Barrier Reef is the most biodiverse of all the World Heritage sites, and of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance” according to the United Nations. A recent report by Deloitte put its value at A$56bn. It contributes an estimated A$6.4bn annually to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs.
Yet this figure grossly underestimates the value of the reef, as it mainly focuses on tourism and the reef’s role as an Australian icon. When you include aspects of the reef that the report excludes, such as the ecosystem services provided by coral reefs, you find that the reef is priceless.
Putting a price on the Great Barrier Reef buys into the notion that a cost-benefit analysis is the right way to make decisions on policies and projects that may affect the reef. For example, the environmental cost of the extension to the Abbot Point coal terminal can be compared to any economic benefits.
But as the reef is both priceless and irreplaceable, this is the wrong approach. Instead, the precautionary principle should be used to make decisions regarding the reef. Policies and projects that may damage the reef cannot go ahead.
The reef cannot exist in the long term without international efforts to curb global warming. To address climate change and reduce emissions, we need to act both nationally and globally. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” to delay action on emissions.
The World Heritage Committee praised the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, and the federal minister for the environment, Josh Frydenberg, has called the outcome “a big win for Australia and a big win for the Turnbull government”.
UNESCO’s draft decision (the adopted version is not yet releasesd) cites significant and ongoing threats to the Reef, and emphasises that much more work is needed to get the health of the Reef back on track. Australia must provide a progress report on the Reef in two years’ time – and they want to see our efforts to protect the reef accelerate.
Right now, unprecedented coral bleaching in consecutive years has damaged two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This bleaching, or loss of algae, affects a 1,500km stretch of the reef. The latest damage is concentrated in the middle section, whereas last year’s bleaching hit mainly the north.