Australia has said it will spend 1 billion Australian dollars ($ 700 million) on new measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef, seven months after the UN threatened to put the site on its “hazard list” due to damage caused by climate change and development.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition government has pledged to improve water quality, fight illegal fishing and reduce the threat of an invasive starfish species ahead of the May 21 federal election.
Queensland, the location of the Great Barrier Reef, is key to the government’s chances of re-election. Some areas, including Leichhardt, which includes Cairns, the gateway to the reef, are seen as potential swings for the opposition Labor Party, and some 64,000 jobs are linked to the site.
Last year, Australia got involved in a battle with UNESCO, which planned to put the reef on its list of dangers in order to take action to protect the 2,300-kilometer living structure from climate change and development. Studies have found that the reef’s ability to recover from the damage caused by global warming has been severely compromised, causing coral replenishment to fail.
The government has successfully lobbied against the move, but the debate has put the health of the reef in the spotlight. UNESCO inspectors must carry out regular inspections of the site to see if it is in danger.
The government has said the new investment will bring its total reef protection costs to A $ 3 billion by 2050. The Labor Party has pledged A $ 163 million to protect the reef this month.
“We support the health of the reef and the economic future of tour operators, hotel providers and Queensland communities, which are at the heart of the reef economy,” Morrison said.
But the commitment has not allayed fears from environmental activists, who have long criticized the government for its climate change policies.
Terry Butler, the shadow minister for the environment and water, said the plan was a recognition that the government had not done enough to protect the reef. “They are not serious about climate change, which means they are not serious about defending the reef,” she said.
Jodie Rumer, a marine biologist at James Cook University, said the government’s focus was insufficient because it ignored climate change, which she described as a “number one” threat.
“It would be like being in a massive car accident and getting an arterial wound and bleeding from your arteries, and paramedics show up and want to put small bandages on the abrasions and cuts on your leg,” said Rumer, who is studying the effects of climate change on the reef.
The Australian government is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November. But critics say environmental policies remain incompatible with the goals of international climate treaties.
Rumer said the warm conditions, which she did not expect to see until 2050 or 2100, “are happening now.” She added that massive coral bleaching as a result of three sea heat waves over the past five years has hit 98% of the reef.
Bleaching occurs when warm conditions force the algae to separate from the coral, depriving it of its food source and ultimately killing it.
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