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Is Australia meeting the UN recommendations for the Great Barrier Reef?

The World Heritage Committee has called for a comprehensive assessment not just of the threats to the Great Barrier Reef, but of their cumulative effect. AAP Image/Australian Institute for Marine Science, Ray Berkelmans

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, released jointly by the federal and Queensland governments last weekend, claims that both governments “have responded to all recommendations of the World Heritage Committee and indeed have gone further”.

Over the past four years the World Heritage Committee has made more than 28 separate recommendations or formal comments about the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). These appear as formal decisions on the UNESCO website: 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. They can be divided roughly equally into three types - requests for action; more strongly-worded statements (for instance, “Notes with great concern the unprecedented scale of coastal development currently being proposed…”); and compliments for progress made by Australia.

The most important of all these recommendations, which has been made repeatedly since 2011 and most recently in 2014, is quite unambiguous:

(The Committee) “… reiterates its request to (Australia) … to ensure that the Long-Term Plan for Sustainable Development results in concrete and consistent management measures that are sufficiently robust, effectively governed and adequately financed, to ensure the overall long-term conservation of the (Reef) and its Outstanding Universal Value, including … addressing cumulative impacts and increasing reef resilience”.

This request is not unreasonable, given the global significance of the Great Barrier Reef – arguably the most important World Heritage property on the planet in terms of its biodiversity.

So is Australia meeting the Committee’s most important request as well as its other recommendations?

Four priority threats

The government’s own 5-yearly report card, the GBR Outlook Report 2014, identifies four priority threats:

Climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off, impacts from coastal development and some remaining impacts of fishing remain the major threats to the future vitality of the Great Barrier Reef.

Addressing two out of four threats is not enough

The Reef 2050 Plan includes actions to address water quality and some impacts of coastal development, but has been widely criticised for failing to address adequately the threats of climate change or unsustainable fishing practices.

The Reef 2050 Plan aspires to be a long-term framework to “ensure the overall long-term conservation of the (Reef) and its Outstanding Universal Value”, but fails to acknowledge the huge changes that are likely to occur over the term of the plan (35 years), such as a doubling of the Queensland population, the projected growth in agriculture and coal production, and expected changes in technology.

The 2050 Plan also states that “currently governments are contributing around $200 million a year to support the resilience of the Reef”, and refers to extra funding from the Queensland and federal governments over five years, primarily to address water quality.

But an independent assessment for water quality concluded that A$785 million would be required over the next 5 years, and A$2 billion over the next 15 years, to make a real difference. So it is clear that the plan is not “adequately financed”, as the Committee requested.

Cumulative impacts not addressed

In 2012 the Committee requested that Australia should:

… fully address direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on the Reef and lead to concrete measures to ensure the overall conservation of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.

The combined impacts of climate change, poor water quality and direct use have caused a decline in the values for which the area was listed as world heritage, including an estimated loss of 50% of coral cover and significant declines in dugong and seabird populations.

The 2050 Plan makes repeated mention of this fundamental issue of cumulative impacts. But other than recommending the development of various guidelines or policies, the Plan provides no practical guidance on how to address them.

The Plan is effectively “business-as-usual”, allowing new pressures like dredging, coastal development and new coal mines to be superimposed on the existing pressures, leading to “death by a thousand cuts”, as documented in the government’s GBR Outlook Report 2014.

Other important recommendations

After the International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNESCO visited the GBR in 2012, they produced a comprehensive report (download the pdf here) with a further 15 detailed recommendations.

Of these recommendations, only two have been fully met: commission an independent review into the Gladstone Harbour and Curtis Island developments; and assess the condition, trends, and threats for the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the GBR (available in Appendix A of this report)

Of the remaining 13 recommendations, the majority have only partially been met, despite their fundamental importance for protecting the values of the GBR. Here are some examples:

Recommendation 5 (part): …identify appropriate and limited locations and standards for coastal development, and also identify areas that should not be subject to development…

The 2050 Plan does not identify nor provide a map of “appropriate and limited locations” where developments such as new port or tourism developments might occur on or near the Reef. More importantly, it fails to identify where development should not occur.

Recommendation 9: Ensure all components of the Outstanding Universal Value of the GBR are clearly defined and form a central element within the protection and management system for the property…

To achieve this, all components of the Reef’s Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) (that is, the things that make the Reef globally unique) need to be both correctly identified and publicly accessible. Appendix B in the revised 2050 Plan provides only part of the official “Statement of OUV” (the full wording can be found on pages 20-23 here), omitting to provide a fundamentally important part called “Integrity” or the part covering Protection and Management.

Has Australia done enough to satisfy the Committee?

The final version of the Reef 2050 plan claims to be the definitive document on Australia’s approach to protecting the GBR. Yet many of the concerns raised by scientists when commenting on the draft 2050 Plan have not been addressed, and in some instances, useful parts of the draft Plan (such as the frank assessment of the decline in the values of the Reef in a previous Appendix) have now been omitted in the final 2050 Plan.

It remains uncertain whether the World Heritage Committee will consider that Australia has done enough and whether or not the Reef should be officially listed as World Heritage in Danger.

The current and proposed magnitude of investment is insufficient to effectively address the four priority threats, nor is it commensurate to protect in perpetuity a World Heritage property that generates more than A$5 billion every year for the Australian economy, primarily through sustainable tourism.

Irrespective of the outcome of the Committee’s decision in June 2015, we recommend the following:

  1. Amendments to improve the Reef 2050 Plan to address the above concerns;
  2. Much greater levels of real funding for protection and management; and
  3. A far greater commitment from both governments to restore the values at Reef-wide, regional and local levels.

Unless the above concerns are urgently addressed, the future of this global icon will be bleak, as concluded by the government’s own GBR Outlook Report 2014, which stated:

…the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future.

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