Great Barrier Reef isn’t in ‘Danger’ says United Nations’ World Heritage Committee

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In what is being considered to be a huge positive for Australia as well as the current Turnbull government, United Nations’ World Heritage Committee has declared that the Great Barrier Reef isn’t in danger.

The decision comes even after two back to back mass bleaching events that have killed thousands of corals in the Reef.

The committee did however ask the Australian government to ensure that it continues to work towards ensuring that it meets with the intermediate and long-term targets of the conservation plan, which are essential to the overall resilience of the property, in particular regarding water quality.

After a concerted lobbying effort by the government in 2015, the reef narrowly avoided being designated “in danger”. A condition of the decision was a progress report being submitted by the end of 2016. Mass bleaching events have heightened the risk of the reef going on the “in danger” list.

Analysis released last month from the World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature, considered by the committee, said “climate change remains the most significant overall threat to the future of the property”.

It said authorities were making “slow” progress in meeting water-quality targets, which include an 80 per cent cut to nitrogen run-off and 50 per cent cut to sediment run-off by 2025.

The analysis said more work – and the successful passage of land-clearing legislation in Queensland – were required to meet the targets laid out in the government’s 2050 long-term sustainability plan.

Economic value of the Great Barrier Reef

Deloitte Access Economics has valued the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion, with an economic contribution of A$6.4 billion per year. 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 Deloitte report uses what’s known as a “contingent valuation” approach. This is a survey-based methodology, and is commonly used to measure the value of non-market environmental assets such as endangered species and national parks – as well as to calculate the impact of events such as oil spills.

In valuing the reef, surveys were used to elicit people’s willingness to pay for it, such as through a tax or levy. This was found to be A$67.60 per person per year. The report also uses the travel-cost method, which estimates willingness to pay for the Great Barrier Reef, based on the time and money that people spend to visit it. Again, this is commonly used in environmental economics to value national parks and the recreational value of local lakes.

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