Enough PR Spin: We Need A Real Plan For The Reef That Includes Ditching Coal

Fairfax - Prof. Will Steffen*

On Friday, federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Queensland Environment Minister Stephen Miles will come together for a meeting of the Reef Ministerial Council.
The most important agenda item will be reports to the UNESCO world heritage committee, within the next two weeks, on the state of the reef and how it is acting to protect it. This will include the Northern Reef Response Plan – the official management response to the disastrous coral bleaching event earlier this year.

Video shows mass coral bleaching of Great Barrier Reef
New footage shows the bleak aftermath of the extreme underwater heatwave last summer on the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef, from Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The ducking and weaving of responsibility from all levels of government when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef has been nothing short of acrobatic, so let's be clear that any plan in response to coral bleaching that isn't centred around the rapid phase-out of coal is not a plan – it's PR spin.
The government approach so far has been to highlight the global effort to tackle climate change, without even a smidgen of irony about the fact that Australia has lagged far behind the efforts of other wealthy nations, while at the same time diverting attention from the main game by focusing on its funding of water quality and other Reef initiatives.
Coral bleaching at Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Climate Council
The Australian government can no longer get away with attempting to distract the Australian public through the funding of these initiatives while failing to do anything to tackle what's fundamentally driving the bleaching: the burning of coal, oil and gas. It's like having an argument about fixing a broken window while the house is on fire. Fixing the broken window is only worthwhile if you put the fire out.
Climate change has driven extreme ocean temperatures, making the bleaching on the Reef this year at least 175 times more likely.
At present rates of climate change, this level of bleaching could occur every two years by the 2030s.
For the Great Barrier Reef to have a reasonable chance of survival, global temperature rises must be capped at 1.5 degrees, and to have any chance at all, the temperature rise must be limited to no more than 2 degrees.
Before (March 2016, left) and after (May 2016) images of coral bleaching and death at Lizard Island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  Photo: XL Catlin Seaview Survey via AP
For just a 50:50 chance of meeting the 2 degree target, the world can burn just 10 per cent of existing coal reserves – and that means existing coal mines or those that are now financially viable and are on the financial markets to be exploited.
To increase the chances of meeting the 2 degree target or to have any chance of meeting the 1.5 degree target, all existing coal reserves must be phased out as soon possible and no new coal mines can be opened. This phase-out must occur very rapidly in order to stay below 1.5 degrees – within the next decade, most likely.
This has obvious implications for Queensland, and Australia more generally. There can be no Carmichael mine, or any other new mine, and no new infrastructure of any kind to exploit coal. And there must be a plan for the rapid phase-out of coal. It's far too late to leave it to the market. Without a rapid phase-out of coal, the Reef doesn't have a future.
As a climate scientist, it makes me frustrated and angry to think that the only thing standing in the way of the survival of this precious natural wonder is political will. It is utterly appalling that the country that has custodianship of the Great Barrier Reef cannot even find the political will to do its fair share to save it.
The vast majority of Australians support reduced reliance on coal and the technological means are there to make a rapid transition away from coal.
Hopefully, Friday marks a turning point in the government's approach to climate change and the havoc it is wreaking on the Reef.
Otherwise, history will judge our leaders harshly indeed for the decisions they fail to make now.

*Professor Will Steffen is a climate scientist and councillor with the Climate Council.


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