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In girding for climate change, Great Barrier Reef plan falls short
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In girding for climate change, Great Barrier Reef plan falls short

The Australian government on Saturday unveiled a long-awaited plan to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Scientists are unimpressed. It’s "a big disappointment," says Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Australia. The plan, he says, “virtually ignores climate change."

For years, scientists have fretted about degradation of the reef. Although 344,400 square kilometers are protected as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, researchers reported in a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the reef’s coral cover shrank by half between 1985 and 2012 because of storm damage, predation by crown-of-thorns starfish, and bleaching—the loss of the coral’s photosynthetic organisms when the water gets too warm. “Without intervention, the GBR may lose the biodiversity and ecological integrity for which it was listed as a World Heritage Area,” the team warned.

Heeding such alarms, last summer the World Heritage Committee warned that unless the Australian government produced a long-term action plan to protect the reef, it might list the GBR as "in danger," a step that could lead to the reef losing the World Heritage Site status it has held since 1981.

The government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded with a draft plan last November. Academic societies and scientists called for “much bolder action,” more details on targets for such things as water quality, and consideration of climate change.

Those recommendations did influence the final plan, which sets targets for reducing nitrogen runoff from fertilizer use by 80% and for cutting sedimentation from coastal development by 50% by 2025. The government recently banned dumping dredged sediment in the marine park. And there will be an additional $78 million over 5 years to improve water quality.

Australia is telling the world "that we are utterly committed as an entire nation to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef," Abbott said while unveiling the report at a 21 March press conference.

Although the plan includes a number of good initiatives, it falls short of what’s required to halt the reef’s decline, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Australia said in a statement. “Billions not millions are needed to save the reef,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.

Scientists are taking issue particularly with the lack of measures to address climate change, despite a statement in the plan calling it "the single biggest threat to coral reefs worldwide." In a recent report, the Australian Coral Reef Society said that current plans to develop massive coal deposits and the associated expansion of ports near the reef would affect it both directly—with increased coal dust, coastal runoff, dredging, and increased shipping with its attendant threats to marine life—and indirectly by increasing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. "We are still unhappy about the port expansions going ahead and the huge coal mines," says Selina Ward, a reef ecologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Australia and a report co-author.

"Australia has to make up its mind about whether to build and operate the world's largest coal mines over the next 60 years, or to reduce the threats to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change, pollution, and overfishing. We can't do both," says Hughes, who, with colleagues, warned the reef may be approaching a tipping point.

In response to questions on this point at the press conference, Abbott said that his government is pursuing policies to address climate change separately, adding, "It's important that we continue to strengthen our economy, because a strong economy and a better environment should go hand in hand."

The World Heritage Committee is due to announce a decision on the reef's status in July. Conservationists and politicians are making separate bets. "The Australian government has so far failed to take the action necessary to avoid the Great Barrier Reef being added to the ‘World Heritage in danger’ list," Greenpeace said in a statement. Appearing at the press conference with Abbott, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said that they have worked closely with representatives of the international organizations involved in World Heritage Committee deliberations to incorporate their suggestions into the plan. "I have to say, at this stage, the feedback has been extremely positive," he said.

With reporting by Leigh Dayton.