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No winners in shameful political game played with our Reef

July 28, 2021

By retired Great Barrier Reef tourism operator Tony Fontes

My diving career started back in 1979 with my very first dive on the Great Barrier Reef. I clearly remember that first dive; spectacular, inspiring and humbling.

The rest of the world must have agreed with my humble opinion because in 1981, the Reef was declared a World Heritage Area. It has always been an Australian icon and now it was a world icon.

I had always considered the Reef to be a vast, everlasting castle of coral, too big to fail.

Tony Fontes

Tony Fontes

But I was wrong.

Now fast forward 40 years. I am still diving the Great Barrier Reef and it is still spectacular, inspiring and humbling… But not everlasting. The Reef is truly “in danger” of failing and needs our help. For a moment in time, UNESCO declared the Reef should be listed as “in Danger”.

But the Australian Government is great at playing political games with our Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to unprecedented political pressure from the Australian Government, the World Heritage Committee has postponed its decision to list the Reef “in Danger” until 2022.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in this shameful political game, only losers.

Sadly, the biggest loser is the Great Barrier Reef. Whether the Morrison government likes it or not, the Reef is, in fact, “in danger” and postponing that decision doesn’t change a thing. Decades of poor water quality has reduced the resilience of the Reef. We are already at 1.2 degrees C of global warming. Over the past 5 years, three mass bleaching events, powered by unprecedented underwater heat waves, has destroyed up to 50% of the Reef’s hard coral cover.

The Reef needs help now, and listing it as ‘in Danger’ would have led to intensified measures to protect it.

Shamefully, another loser is the Australian Government which has clearly shown us that it is more interested in saving face than saving the Reef. They claim any decision to list the Reef “in Danger” is a politically influenced Chinese conspiracy. Should we laugh or cry? This is simply smoke and mirrors to hide decades of inept Government Reef protection policy and a total lack of climate policy.

Instead of an effective climate policy, this government is supporting the fossil fuel industry and backing new mines like Adani and opening new gasfields across the country including the Beetaloo Basin – which will supercharge the global warming that’s impacting our Reef. We are still waiting on Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to reject or approve a proposed new open cut coal mine by Clive Palmer’s Central Queensland Coal. This decision is currently a month overdue. We should be transitioning to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible.

The UNESCO draft decision made it clear that Australia needs to urgently lift its efforts on climate action this decade. Currently, we are ranked last for climate action among UN member countries. Now UNESCO has given the Australian government until February 2022 to upgrade its climate policy. Now the World Heritage Committee has given the Australian government until February 2022 to upgrade its climate policy. This is not a good outcome for them. They will now be under pressure to act on climate, water quality and unsustainable fishing practices in the lead up to a Federal election. They will also have to face ‘in Danger’ again at next year’s WHC meeting.

But can the Reef wait until 2022 and a new round of lobbying the WHC? The Reef needs action now. Science has made it crystal clear that if we do not hold the future temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C, the Reef as we know it now will cease to exist.

Australia’s current policies are consistent with a 2.5C or 3C of global warming.

To have any chance at all to meet this goal, we need immediate action to reduce our carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035.

A version of this opinion piece was published in the Courier Mail.