Government unveils 2050 Great Barrier Reef plan: experts react

The new Reef 2050 plan is taking the long view on protecting the Great Barrier Reef - but does it have the right vision? Nickj/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

On Saturday the federal and Queensland governments released the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which outlines key measures to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef over the next 35 years.

The plan identifies targets and actions to protect the reef’s natural beauty and extraordinary wildlife as an internationally recognised World Heritage Area.

The plan addresses key threats to the reef identified in the 2014 Outlook Report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which found the overall outlook of the reef is poor and getting worse.

The greatest threats to the reef are climate change, coastal development, runoff, and some fishing.

Dumping of capital dredge spoil will be banned within the marine park and World Heritage Area, and dredging for new projects will be confined to established ports. However maintenance dredging will continue.

Established reef ports are Abbot Point; Gladstone; Hay Point and Mackay; and Townsville. Queensland Government, Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, CC BY

Sediment in runoff will be reduced to 50% below 2009 levels by 2025, and nitrogen by 80%.

On climate change, the plan cites the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund as the main tool for reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

Overall, the plan projects funding of A$2 billion over 10 years, including A$200 million from the federal government (particularly A$40 million from the Reef Trust) and A$100 million from the Queensland government over five years.

Below, experts react to the new plan.

Barbara Norman, Foundation Chair, Urban and Regional Planning at University of Canberra

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan avoids the tough issues. The major omissions are a clear statement that protecting the environment is the first priority, a continuing absence of effective national action on climate change, and the continuing impact of coastal development and mining related infrastructure.

To illustrate, future “Masterplans” for the ports (Gladstone, Hay Point Mackay, Abbot Point and Townsville) will consider “operational, economic, environmental and social relationships as well as supply chains and surrounding land uses.”

Another example is that decision makers will have regard to a set of principles that include economic, social and environmental considerations. When push comes to shove a weak “having regard to” with no clear priorities is fraught with danger.

In contrast the Victorian Coastal Strategy 2014 sets a clear hierarchy of principles for decision makers placing protection of the environment first.

This approach is intentional because in coastal planning you are dealing with major vested interests and multiple stakeholders and the environment is most often the poor cousin in a decision making process that take a “balanced” approach.

The Queensland Government and the Commonwealth government need to make this clear commitment to the Great Barrier Reef in policy and law. A World Heritage Area deserves no less.

Terry Hughes, Federation Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

The final plan is a disappointment because too much of it is business-as-usual. The recent decision by Minister Hunt to ban dumping of capital dredge spoil is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is no change to the amount of dredging per se, only where it can be dumped. For example, Townsville Port is still proposing to dredge 10 million cubic metres of material, which will likely kill off the few corals that still survive around Magnetic Island.

There are no restrictions proposed for dumping about 2 million cubic metres of maintenance dredge spoil each year from the major ports, either in the Marine Park or the coastal area of the World Heritage Area administered by Queensland.

The biggest omission in the plan is that it virtually ignores climate change, which is clearly the major ongoing threat to the reef. Perversely, the plan will be partially financed by offsets – effectively fines paid as a licence fee for environmental damage – from fossil fuel developments.

The government wants to have coal mines operating in 60 years’ time, and still hopes to have a healthy reef. The science says otherwise: either we plan to adequately protect the reef and transition away from fossil fuels, or we abandon the reef and develop the world’s largest thermal coal mines. We can’t possibly do both.

Iain McCalman, Professorial Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney

I applaud the Australian Government’s plan to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality by reducing the pollution caused by sewage, chemical fertilisers and silt dumping. But when it comes to preserving the long-term health of the reef and its region, these policies go straight to the periphery of the matter.

Instituting such remedies while at the same time supporting massive increases in coal mining – with their attendant need for port expansions, channel dredging, and container ship congestion – seems bizarre at best. These much-trumpeted new water policies deliberately ignore the dire long-term threats to the reef that are contained in the now unutterable words “climate change”. They are akin to investing in cures for a patient’s skin diseases while ignoring their cancer symptoms.

The global warming and climate instability resulting from the greenhouse gases that we pump into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels will continue, with mounting frequency, to cause our reef waters both to warm and to acidify. Only a few degrees of water heat beyond normal turns reef-growing corals into bleached white skeletons; and the carbon dioxide-altered water chemistry also causes their limestone skeletons to dissolve gradually, as if immersed in carbonic acid.

If all this were not enough, more frequent and more ferocious cyclones – like the one that has just devastated Vanuatu – will bash the reef’s increasingly brittle skeletons to pieces. We might have cleaner waters, but we won’t have a reef.

No wonder our late great poet Judith Wright once wrote in exasperation that if the Barrier Reef could think, it would fear us. We offer gifts with one hand and wield clubs with the other.