The world’s largest coral reef stretches over 2,300 kilometers off the coast of Queensland. But the Great Barrier Reef is threatened with destruction. The Australian government is also being criticized – this could cost the climate offender dearly.
Anyone diving or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian northeast coast cannot escape the fascination of this unique underwater world.
Spectacular coral formations, gently swaying sea anemones and countless sea creatures: the reef is considered to be one of the most breathtaking natural wonders on earth. But it is on the verge of collapse: Three devastating coral bleaching within the past five years – 2016, 2017 and 2020 – as well as industrialization along the coasts have hit it hard. Now its World Heritage status is in jeopardy.
Experts warn that the rising water temperatures could soon completely destroy the 25 million year old splendor. As soon as the first of the three devastating coral bleaching started, Terry Hughes of the Institute of Coral Research at James Cook University reported: “I showed the results of our aerial photographs to my students after a flyover. And then we cried. ‘
Since then, the situation has gotten worse rather than better. That is why Unesco wants to decide at its meeting in Fuzhou, China in the next few days whether the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on the list of endangered natural heritage sites. The long-term prospects for the reef, which has been a World Heritage Site since 1981, have changed from “bad” to “very bad”, according to the UN organization. The government in Australia’s capital Canberra does not want to hear or publicly discuss this, but the facts speak for themselves.
And the fact is that Australia has one of the highest CO2 emission rates per capita and is the largest coal exporter in the world. Just a few months ago, the conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that he would continue to expand the gas industry and budget for it at 58 million Australian dollars (37 million euros). In addition, 600 million Australian dollars (380 million euros) in taxpayers’ money will flow into a new gas-fired power plant on the east coast.
While more and more countries are committed to the fight against global warming, Australia apparently wants to hold onto fossil fuels in the long term and thus continue to contribute to climate change. But many coral gardens around the world cannot tolerate warming – especially when they are as complex as the Great Barrier Reef.
The warming of the oceans is accompanied by other problems: The reef is ‘in acute danger of being misused as an industrial area and shipping highway,’ warned the WWF in January. “The planned expansion of coal ports increases the risk of irreparable reef damage, environmental catastrophes due to ship accidents and water pollution dramatically. That mustn’t happen. ‘
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in 2018 that 70 to 90 percent of all tropical coral reefs in the world could die if the global temperature rose by 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. A study found that the more than 340,000 square kilometer Great Barrier Reef has already lost more than half of its corals in just over two decades. “We always thought that the Great Barrier Reef was protected by its sheer size,” the authors say. This was a mistake.
For the first time in 2014, the Australian Government’s World Heritage Committee threatened to consider a hazard classification of the Great Barrier Reef. However, the government was given time to develop a long-term strategy. This is what it did and in 2015 presented the so-called “Reef 2050 Plan”. Investments were made in reef management, in scientific projects, in improving the water quality. Dumping of excavated material was banned across the area – until then, dumping of dredged material around the Great Barrier Reef had been the norm for decades.
But that is by far not enough – ‘stronger and clearer obligations’ are urgently needed, warns Unesco. Environment Minister Sussan Ley disagrees: “I agree that global climate change is the greatest threat to the world’s reefs. But we believe it is wrong to single out the world’s best-managed reef for a list of endangered sites. ‘
The government’s official reef ambassador, Warren Ent, even invited a dozen international ambassadors to snorkel on the reef – probably in the hope that diplomats would rave about supposedly healthy coral gardens before their governments vote. A downgrade could lead to the Great Barrier Reef losing its World Heritage status entirely.
And that would have serious consequences: The reef with its islands and atolls is a huge tourist attraction and thus a significant economic factor. The livelihoods of more than 64,000 people in the state of Queensland depend on it. Before Corona came around two million visitors every year. Experts estimate the value of the reef for tourism alone at around 20 billion euros. In the event of bad press, there is a risk of significant break-ins.
‘The government spares no effort or expense to cover up the dire situation of the Great Barrier Reef,’ wrote climate expert Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. At the same time, it is driving forward the burning of fossil fuels. Australia’s efforts to curb climate change can be described as ‘pathetic at best’.
A lot is at stake in the Unesco decision, which is expected from Friday, warned Hughes. Because if the reef were really removed from the World Heritage List at some point, it would be ‘both humiliating and economically devastating’ for Australia.