A billion-dollar bad idea is no escape clause for the Great Barrier Reef

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A big pledge for a big problem is no solution without integrity

By David Salt

“So, Minister, how exactly did you arrive at this one-billion-dollar price tag for saving the Great Barrier Reef?” asked the newly appointed Director of Government Probity.

“Well Ms DGP, as you will see from the extensive paperwork we’ve submitted, the figure of a billion dollars is based on extensive scientific, social and economic research compiled by the good officers of our well-resourced Department for the Environment.

“It’s a lot of money but what price do you put on saving a priceless piece of World Heritage; not to mention the economic return derived from people enjoying the Reef.

“Our scientists have pin pointed exactly the threats assailing this coral wonderland; our economists have worked up a precise list of actions we need to take to address these threats – costed down to the last dollar; and our social scientists have undertaken rigorous process of community engagement to ensure that the people on and around the Reef know what the situation is, and are ready to put their backs to the wheel to ensure the Great Barrier Reef will be there in all its glory for them, their children and grandchildren.

“It all brings a tear to your eye,” said the Minister (and, indeed, her eyes were tearing up). “But with something this important, it’s worth all the effort. It is, of course, simply the Australian Way!”

“Yes, thank you Minister,” responded the DGP. “Well done. It seems you and your Department have really done the due diligence on this one. The Reef is in good hands! The world thanks you.”

The Australian Way

Of course, there’s nothing much real in the above exchange. There is no Director (or agency) of Government Probity; the Department of Environment (subsumed into the bigger Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) is underfunded and overworked; and scientists do know what is killing the Great Barrier Reef – it’s climate change – but the Government is not listening to them. Our Prime Minister has described this approach to climate change as “the Australian Way”; but the world is not thanking Australia for adopting this path.

For all that, the Federal Coalition Government has pledged $1 billion dollars towards saving the Great Barrier Reef, one of the single biggest investments on an ecosystem in Australia’s history; surely, even if it’s only been done as a sweetener in the run up to a Federal election – that’s a good thing, right?

Let’s consider what a billion dollar buys you

For starters, it’s not an up-front payment but a promise to commit $1 billion dollars to reef-related programs over the next nine years – if the Coalition gets re-elected.

Most of that money ($579.9m) won’t go on the Reef itself but will be dedicated to water quality projects on land, the adjoining catchments from which water runs off onto the reef. Declining water quality has long been identified as a major threat to reef health. In 2016 the Queensland Government contracted economists to estimate how much it would cost to meet water quality targets through actions such as changing land management, improving irrigation and repairing erosion. Their best estimate was that it would cost $8.2billion over 10 years (that’s $820 million per year).

The Government’s promise of $570 million over 9 years (or an average of $63.3 million per year) suddenly doesn’t look so grand.

The next largest slice of the billion dollars – $252.9m – will go towards reef management and conservation. Again, split that over 9 years and multiple institutions caring for the Reef and it’s not the boon the headline number suggests.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway because the best science says the reef is cooked if we don’t do anything about rising carbon emissions.

Indeed, the science on this is firming. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that 1.5°C of global warming would cause between 70 and 90% of the world’s coral reefs to disappear. In research just out, it’s been found that with 1.5°C of warming, which the world is predicted to reach in the early 2030s without drastic action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, 99% of the world’s reefs will experience heatwaves that are too frequent for them to recover.

None of the billion dollars promised to ‘fix’ the Reef is going towards reducing emissions. Analysts say Australia’s approach is aligned with heating closer to 3°C. The Australian Government is not introducing any new policies to tackle carbon emissions in the near term and claims that new (unspecified) technologies will deliver net zero emissions in 30 years’ time. Prime Minister Morrison describes this as the Australian Way.

A billion dollars of cover

At the same time, the Government is trumpeting its billion-dollar investment on saving the Reef to UNESCO in a bid to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage ‘in-danger’ list. A fortnight ago the Government released a report on why the Reef should be kept off this list.

The Morrison government argued every single World Heritage site can be considered in danger from climate change, and the Great Barrier Reef shouldn’t be singled out for a UNESCO status downgrade.

On the release of that report, Environment Minister Sussan Ley puzzlingly observed: “Reefs around the world are under pressure from warming oceans and in the face of that the Morrison government’s leadership in reef management and reef science is second to none.”

So, what are we to make of that? The Government acknowledges that climate change and warming oceans are killing our coral reefs – everywhere, not just around Australia – but chooses to do very little about it.

At the same time they are happy to commit a billion dollars to a cause they know is futile; maybe that’s why they don’t really care that this level of investment is patently inadequate to achieve even the outcomes on water quality they are targeting.

It’s enough to make you blush with embarrassment (and shed a tear of shame).

The real problem

The real problem at the heart of this treacherous affair is a total lack of probity. There is no transparency or accountability around these decisions; no connection between science, economics and funding pledges; no integrity behind government claims and action.

This is a billion-dollar bad idea but the greatest shame in this whole affair is that there is no mechanism (no independent office of government integrity) to hold our political leaders to account.

No, Minister. The Reef is not in good hands! And the world will not be thanking you now or in the future.

Banner image: The Great Barrier Reef is in big trouble. Will a big billion dollars make a difference? Not with an absence of probity. (Image by Sarah_Ackerman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain

What’s happening around the Park makes a mockery of our ‘best management’ approach

By David Salt

Is it hubris, arrogance or duplicity when the country’s Minister for the Environment can claim, almost in the same breath, that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’ but that the science-based outlook for the Reef’s ecosystem has slipped from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’? I’m not joking, read her press release (it came out last Friday). How does ‘best management’ produce this outcome?

Well, it might surprise some of our readers to hear that I don’t actually disagree with the claim that the GBR is one of the world’s better managed reefs. It’s one of the world’s biggest marine parks with a significant portion of it off limits to all forms of development (around a third) thanks to the application of world’s best-practice systematic conservation planning. And the management of this world-heritage listed park is supported by a range of relatively well resourced institutions (GBRMPA, AIMS and the Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies to name three).

We monitor it well and in many areas we have led the world on reef science. And that’s as it should be because Australian’s love the Reef and expect our elected representatives to look after it. Economists tell us it’s worth looking after because it employs 64,000 people, generates $6.4 billion each year and has a total asset value of $56 billion.

The shadow of climate change

The trouble is, the looming threats overshadowing the Reef cannot be addressed by best-practice management within the Park’s boundaries. They originate outside of the Park and the Government claims it has limited power to address them.

In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) released a major peer-reviewed study that found the GBR was under significant stress and that it had lost half of its hard coral since 1985. The cause of this decline was threefold: storm damage (48%), outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns starfish (COTS) (42%) and coral bleaching (10%).

All three threats had connections with climate change but the government (in this case the Federal Government and the Queensland Government who together share responsibility for the Reef) claimed climate change is a global issue beyond its capacity to control. (And, it should be noted, since this report came out the GBR has experienced catastrophic bouts of mass coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017).

No, climate change is something the government won’t buy into but what it says it can do is improve water quality.

Dirty water

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating COTS, encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience* – it’s ability to recover from disturbance.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits it (including climate related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

Interestingly, the same day the Environment Minister released the appalling Reef Outlook report, she also released the 2017 – 2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card which gave a very gloomy prognosis: “Across all Great Barrier Reef catchments, water quality modelling showed a very poor reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (0.3%) and sediment (0.5%). There was also a poor reduction in particulate nitrogen (0.5%).” What was it, bad news Friday or something; put all the garbage out at the same time (and this following on from the latest carbon emissions data showing Australia’s emissions are still rising over several years even though we say we’ll reduce them!).

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve anything. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

Rating the reports

This government prides itself on its managerial approach. However, no matter how well the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is managed, it is a sitting duck facing the coming onslaught of climate-related bleaching events and big storms. The fact that the government can’t even clean up water quality just adds insult to injury.

The science has been saying what we need to do for many years (indeed, see comments by Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts comments on coral reefs, on the Outlook report) but the government hides behind the notion that because one part of the reef system is managed well (the part inside the Park) then they have met their commitments. But that well managed bit is connected to the land component next door and the greater world surrounding it, and those connections are killing the reef.

So, in light of last week’s horror reports on the Outlook for the Reef and the 2017-2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card, I think it would be fair to rate the Government’s progress as FAIL with the comment: hubristic, arrogant and duplicitous; don’t try to dress up a failure as a good effort because to do so just makes it harder to take the tough decisions that are needed.

*Reef resilience – having co-written two textbooks on resilience science (Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) that have played a large role in popularising the concept of resilience, it saddens by enormously to see the idea used by governments as a shield to hide behind when they are unable to engage with the science of climate change.

Image: A reef under stress on multiple fronts (Image ARC Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies)