The draft decision by UNESCO and IUCN proposes not to list the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area as “in danger”, but it does put Australia on notice. It requests a progress report by 1 December 2016, vowing that if “the anticipated progress is not being made”, the GBR will be considered by the Committee in 2017.
At this stage, these are only recommendations, and the draft decision will be considered at the Committee’s meeting in Germany in late June, when the actual wording of the decision will be finalised.
The Committee does not always accept the wording in draft decisions and in recent years has often made amendments. Various factors can influence the views of its 21 member countries, so the final outcome may well depend on the Committee’s deliberations at the meeting.
The real state of the Reef
Either way, the reality is that despite all the pronouncements by the Australian government that the GBR is healthy, the evidence contained in its 2014 Outlook Report and Strategic Assessment has repeatedly demonstrated that the real situation is not as rosy as UNESCO and others are being told.
The following examples, from the Strategic Assessment, reveal the deterioration in many of the world heritage values for which the GBR was recognised as being internationally significant in 1981:
Since 1985, hard coral cover has declined from 28% to 13.8%, mainly in the southern two-thirds of the Reef.
Significant, widespread losses of seagrass have occurred in areas directly affected by cyclones Yasi (2011), Marcia (2015) and Nathan (2015); seagrass abundance south of Cooktown has declined since 2009.
Catastrophic nesting failures at globally significant seabird breeding areas have been recorded in the southern GBR, and the number of breeding seabirds on Raine Island has fallen by 70% since the 1980s.
The dugong population south of Cooktown has drastically declined from 1962 levels (see chapter 7, page 13 here).
The government’s 2014 Outlook Report concluded that:
…the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef.
To make doubly sure the GBR was not listed as “in danger”, diplomatic lobbying seems to have become the government’s main focus in recent months, when what is really needed is a serious and continuous focus on addressing the issues highlighted in its own reports.
The government’s view about the overall health of the GBR differs from that of many concerned individuals and organisations throughout Australia. There is a widespread belief that not enough has been done to ensure the restoration of the world heritage values, especially those shown to be deteriorating. This has led many, including the Australian Academy of Science, to state that the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan is deficient, particularly given the projected changes over the next 35 years.
Concerns for the GBR include climate change, water quality, coastal development, shipping, and unsustainable fishing. The Reef 2050 Plan will need to improve in all these areas if it is to achieve its intended aims.
A group of eminent Australians has also recently voiced their concerns about issues that will further impact on the GBR.
The international lobbying about the GBR in 2014-15 has included senior government officials visiting all the countries on the Committee and briefing diplomats in Canberra and in Paris, offering GBR junkets to overseas journalists, and providing briefings to technical experts from many countries, including paying for visits to the Reef or to resort islands.
The government’s consistent message during all of this lobbying is that the GBR is healthy, and adequate financing will be available to implement the Reef 2050 Plan.
However, several overseas experts have recently told me that the briefings may not have provided the full picture. One example is the much-touted ban on dumping dredge spoil from port developments in the Marine Park, without raising the fact that about a million tonnes of maintenance dredging spoil will continue to be dumped every year in the World Heritage Area.
The expensive, excessive and selective lobbying about the GBR sets a poor global example in attempting to influence the decision-making processes of the World Heritage Committee.
What is the view of the tourism sector?
It has been claimed that tourism would suffer if the GBR were listed as “in danger”. The reality is that most tourist operators know only too well that the outlook for the GBR is poor, and many of them agree with Tony Fontes, a Whitsundays dive operator, who wrote to me:
“In-danger” listing … might actually be the catalyst to ensure the GBR is properly protected. Clearly more effective protection is essential now if we are to ensure tourism in the GBR is able to exist well into the future. Over the 35 years that I have been operating as a tourist operator, I have seen huge changes in the GBR. It’s clear the current management approach is not working to maintain the values which are the real draw cards for visitors, so more needs to be done to better protect the Reef, or the declining values are going to have an impact on the tourism industry in the future anyway.
Why more resources are needed
The government’s pledge to spend A$2 billion over 10 years is no more than the current collective annual expenditure (A$200 million) of four federal agencies, six state agencies and several major research programs over the coming decade.
So far, most funding has been spent addressing water quality, and while it has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends. According to one estimate, fixing the water quality problem alone will cost A$785 million over the first five years, and more beyond.
Even with an extra A$100 million for the Reef Trust in the Federal Budget, the funding is inadequate to deliver fully on the government’s promised plans.
The GBR generates more than A$5 billion every year, mainly from tourism. In economic terms, spending between A$200 million and $250 million per year to manage an asset that generates 20-25 times as much in revenue, but is declining, puts that future income in jeopardy.
If governments insist that further funds are unable be to found, then a re-prioritization of the existing funding must be undertaken to ensure the GBR’s values are restored.
Listing “in danger” would not have fixed the problems
An “in danger” listing, in and of itself, would not save the GBR. It would undoubtedly have raised international awareness of the problems, but those problems will still have to be addressed either way. Hopefully the government will now be encouraged by what it will see as a favourable outcome.
The government has been asked to report back on its policies next year, and on the status of the GBR in 2019. But given the clear evidence of the declining values, annual reporting to UNESCO should be required until it can be shown that the deteriorating trends have been reversed and the Reef 2050 Plan has been improved. The Outlook Report, while an comprehensive report on the overall status of the GBR, is deficient in the one thing that UNESCO needs to know: a thorough assessment of the condition and trend of all the world heritage values.
Irrespective of UNESCO’s final decision next month, Australia must do more to address the wide range of the threats identified in its own reports, and to show a genuine commitment to restoring the values of the GBR for the sake of future generations.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, for now at least. In a draft decision released ahead of its annual meeting next month, it has welcomed Australia’s plan to save the Reef, but also demanded a progress report on its policies by the end of 2016, as well as a full update on the Reef’s conservation status by December 2019.
The move draws a temporary line underneath an issue that has loomed large for the past three years, bringing Australia’s stewardship of the Reef uncomfortably into the international spotlight.
During that time there has been copious input from scientists, politicians and campaigners, discussing threats such as climate change, dredging, pollution, shipping, and even the fate of the barramundi on our plates. It has got people talking all over the planet about whether or not the Australian and Queensland governments really care enough about one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia.
Not everyone has agreed with one another. As debated extensively on The Conversation and elsewhere, experts have advocated both for and against the idea of listing the Reef as endangered.
On one hand, the evidence is impossible to doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since 1985, and the destruction of coastal habitat by rapid port development and other activities has been plain to see. On the other hand, the recent ramping up of remedies by both federal and state governments shows that our leaders clearly want to honour the promises made when the Great Barrier Reef was first listed as World Heritage in 1981.
Has UNESCO made the right call?
I have previously argued that a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered would be premature. So UNESCO’s decision makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.
The first is that the decline of the Great Barrier Reef began as much as 100 years ago, and hence is not something that the government can turn around overnight. It requires a concerted, non-political process that recognises and aggressively solves the problems of pollution, sediments, and unsustainable fishing.
Given that we have not had an effective process for some time (water quality, for instance, has been an issue for decades; it didn’t just pop up in the past couple of years), it would seem counterproductive to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” at a time when federal and state governments are finally beginning to take clear actions in response to the issue. It will take time to rethink coastal agriculture, fix eroded gullies, and address issues such as coastal herbicide and pesticide use.
The second reason is that the response of ecosystems to these policy changes will necessarily be complex and slow. As coral populations hopefully rebound, seagrasses regrow, and threatened populations such as dugong being to recover, we will need to make careful long-term observations before we know if the actions taken now have been effective.
Short-term international manoeuvring won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. We need to think beyond politics and recognise that safeguarding the Reef will require a long-term commitment by Australia as a nation, not just a political process.
The third and final reason is that it would be rather perverse for UNESCO to ignore Australia’s clear intention to take this issue seriously. Given the effort that successive state and federal governments have made to avert an “in danger” listing, what incentive would remain if the listing was made anyway? It would hardly help to motivate future governments to fight the uphill battle of getting the listing removed again.
There is no doubt that federal environment minister Greg Hunt and his Queensland state counterpart Steven Miles will both be sighing with relief that the prospect of an “in danger” listing has been staved off for another five years. This is great for Australia and for the many people who believe that re-listing the reef as “in danger” would have been the wrong step to take at this time.
But the real work starts now. It’s time to vindicate UNESCO’s decision by showing that the Reef is truly being protected.
There are encouraging signs. The Queensland government has successfully introduced the Ports Bill, which restricts port development in Queensland to four so-called Priority Port Development Areas, and has restricted dredging for port facilities outside these areas for the next 10 years.
Meanwhile the federal government has banned port developers from dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and both federal and state governments have committed to a long-term sustainability plan that acknowledges the major challenges from coastal development, pollution, and (in a somewhat less satisfactory way) climate change.
This is all well and good. But as pointed out before, the devil is in the detail. While still in process, much of these commitments still need to be legislated, and without legislation they are no more than hot air. We must also trust our science (and not private opinion), and ensure that we take real actions with a measurable outcome that safeguards the Reef.
It is also absolutely essential that loopholes, such as those within the Ports Bill, are removed so that we never again find ourselves engaging in activities that are ultimately at odds with the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. As it stands now, for example, the Ports Bill only prohibits “significant” port development. However, what is classified as “significant” is not defined by the Bill and is, at this point of time, entirely arbitrary. These problems need to be fixed if Australia’s apparent sincerity about solving the problems is to be believed.
Let’s hope that in 2020, when UNESCO assesses the progress that has been made, Australia passes with flying colours as a nation that has successfully turned around one of its most significant environmental problems.
This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, in one of the world’s best-managed marine parks, might seem safe enough from human activities on land. But its future depends to a large degree on what people do alongside it.
The Reef’s coastline spans about 2,300 km, and its catchment is home to 1,165,000 people, most of whom live along the coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attracts some 1.6 million tourists each year, while the coastal zone produces or exports large volumes of farming and mining products.
While most development has been in the southern two-thirds of the Reef’s coast, south of Cooktown, much of the Reef’s coastal zone has been converted (see pages 6-36 here) to various land uses, such as housing and other urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, commercial and light-industry areas, and tourism facilities. Land has been developed for sugar cane and other crops, aquaculture, stock grazing, highways, railways, refineries and other industrial developments, and ports.
People have changed the Reef’s coastal zone dramatically, and the direct result is the decline of the Reef’s ecosystems. Further declines are likely, but not inevitable – with enough commitment, we can improve the Reef’s condition.
Effects of coastal development
The beauty, biological richness, and cultural values that have made the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Area, not to mention a global and national icon, are at stake, as UNESCO weighs up whether to add the Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The water that flows into the Reef’s lagoon is polluted with sediments, nutrients and pesticides. Urban development is a big contributor, while some tourism developments, such as Port Hinchinbrook, have been ecologically damaging because of poor planning or inappropriate fast-tracking.
Many coastal waterways have been blocked by roads and dams; recreational and commercial fishing have damaged habitats and populations of dolphins and dugongs (see page 127 here); and shipping traffic is set to increase markedly, with the associated port development posing a threat from dredging.
The problem is simple, even if the solutions are not: a long succession of piecemeal developments and government approvals has ignored or failed to understand the environmental problems, and put short-term gain before the long-term survival of the Reef.
What are we doing about it?
To the casual observer, checks and balances seem to be in place for safeguarding the Reef. Large developments are subject to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), while there are systems aimed at monitoring cumulative damage and offsetting any environmental losses.
The reality is different. The EIA process is broken, with a focus on bureaucratic procedure instead of good environmental outcomes, and permit conditions are not being monitored. Offsets are poorly implemented, preventing real compensation for environmental losses, and the assessment of cumulative impacts is primitive.
Last year, when the Federal and Queensland governments released their draft 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, they acknowledged that the greatest risks to the Reef are “climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities”. In a critical response, the Australian Academy of Science pointed out that the draft plan would promote further coastal development and fail to assess and mitigate the resulting impacts on the Reef.
Some statements of achievement don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the ban on marine dumping of dredge spoil from new port developments leaves the Queensland government with the problem of deciding where else it will go, with the environmental impacts still unknown. And the plan is vague about the management of around a million cubic metres a year of spoil from maintenance dredging at existing ports.
The Reef Trust, bolstered by an extra $100 million in the recent Federal Budget, provides welcome additional funding, although not enough to address all the threats to the Reef. And some of the Reef Trust money amounts to a levy on developers who damage the Great Barrier Reef, with the funds set to be used in ways that are obscure and – if past performance is any guide – possibly ineffective.
The Reef 2050 Plan sets targets for ecosystem health and biodiversity that are general and qualitative, making achievement subject to argument. Enhancements to management of coastal land-use change are described using terms such as “add to”, “require”, “strengthen”, and “ensure” – vaguely encouraging, but essentially lacking in specific commitment.
Time to get serious
If the Federal and Queensland governments are serious about reducing the impacts of present and future coastal development on the Great Barrier Reef, there are several ways forward.
First, the burden of proof should rest with developers. We have pushed the Great Barrier Reef to the point where there can be no more tolerance of uncertainty about the impacts of developments. Where there is any uncertainty, proponents of new developments must demonstrate that no harm will ensue.
Second, the environmental impact assessment process needs to be made effective, by appointing contractors capable of independent assessment, introducing peer-review of assessments, ensuring financial guarantees against unexpected impacts, and regular auditing of approval conditions.
Third, governments need to use the best available methods to assess cumulative impacts on the Reef as a result of changes in land and water use, coastal planning decisions, and the future demands for coal, sugar cane, tourism or other products. We have the ability to model the effects of all these factors on the Reef, using the best available data and expert opinion.
Fourth, there is an urgent need to tighten the process of environmental offsets, which are meant to deliver environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for damage caused by development. Above and beyond the need to first avoid or mitigate environmental damage from developments, offsets should be designed according to world’s best practice, an appropriate standard for the Great Barrier Reef.
Fifth, targets for recovery of the Reef need actual numbers, not vague statements. And those numbers should, at any time, be the best available estimates of what is needed for the recovery of key ecosystems and species, coupled with ongoing monitoring.
Committed action on these five fronts would be a strong start toward reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. There is no time to lose.
Bob Pressey is Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Alana Grech is Lecturer in Spatial Information Science at Macquarie University.
Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Marcus Sheaves is Professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University.
Sharks are one of the oldest and least changed of all the living back-boned jawed creatures. But because their skeletons are made of cartilage much of their early fossil record is poor.
Cartilage is a rubbery tissue that forms the framework for bones to ossify (harden) upon. It’s why babies have rubbery legs when they begin to walk, as the bones haven’t fully ossified around the cartilage cores. Our ears and noses have cartilage frameworks too, which lack bone, but still support the soft structures we hear and smell with.
Cartilage doesn’t preserve as well as bones, so the early shark fossil records are based mostly on isolated scales and teeth.
Although the oldest of these shark-like scales is 480 million years old, the oldest complete shark fossil, Cladoselache, is only about 360 million years old.
Older but quite incomplete fossil sharks are known, such as Doliodus from Canada, around 400 million years old. But the simple truth is that most sharks of this age are known only from isolated teeth or scales.
This poor fossil record is partly responsible for scientists thinking that sharks must represent a primitive condition in vertebrate evolution compared to all other fishes and land animals (tetrapods) which have a well-ossified bony skeleton.
But this idea has just been challenged due to the discovery, announced today in the journal PLOS One, of a 380-million-year-old fossil shark from Western Australia named Gogoselachus lynbeazleyae that shows remnant bone cells present in its cartilaginous skeleton.
Finding the fossil
Finding a very rare fossil in the field gives one a kind of euphoric rush and I recall it well the day I found the Gogo shark, at 11am on July 7, 2005. I was searching for fossils on Gogo Station in the Kimberley, near Fitzroy Crossing, about a four-hour drive inland from Broome.
I had just split a limestone nodule with my hammer and saw a vague outline of a pair of jaws staring at me. Examining the specimen with my hand lens revealed the teeth had multiple cusps fixed onto a broad bony base – a feature unique to sharks at this time. I was overjoyed at finding the first fossil shark in more than 60 years of collecting from the site.
So why the big deal about finding a shark at Gogo? The Gogo Formation is undoubtedly one of the world’s best sites for studying the early evolution of fishes as it yields superb three-dimensional specimens that lived 380 million years ago, a very important time in fish evolution.
Gogo has a diverse fauna of many kinds of ancient armoured placoderm fishes as well as early bony fishes (osteichthyans), but no sharks.
Finding a shark at Gogo has been a bit of a holy grail for fish palaeontologists as we all expected a shark from this site would have extraordinarily good preservation. It should reveal something new about early shark evolution, as nearly all other sharks of this age were flattened and poorly preserved.
Back in the lab, I prepared the specimen in dilute acetic acid, which slowly dissolved away the limestone rock surrounding the fossil. I was surprised to find the cartilaginous elements of the shark easily came out of the rock. This suggested that the skeleton was made of a special kind of highly mineralised cartilage.
Although mostly incomplete, the specimen comprised the complete lower jaws, shoulder girdles which support the pectoral fins, some isolated gill-arch elements and many small teeth and scales.
The teeth were highly unusual, with many small cusps surrounding the larger fangs. From the distinctive teeth we knew we had a new species of shark, as every living shark on the planet has its characteristic teeth that can identify the species from teeth alone.
Gogoselachus was clearly a fast-swimming predator that hunted other fishes using its jagged teeth to snare prey. Gogoselachus lived on an ancient reef that teemed with many kinds of large predatory placoderm fishes, so had to hold its own in this piscine rat race.
Fossil shark cartilage with bone cells
Professor Per Ahlberg is a palaeontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden who was not involved in the study but is an expert on early fish evolution. He acknowledges that this discovery about early sharks is interesting.
It fills an ecological gap in our understanding of the Gogo reef. We know from other fossil localities that sharks had evolved and were already quite diverse by this time, so it has always been a puzzle that they were absent from the Gogo fauna. Now we can see that they were there after all, even though they seem to have been quite rare.
Yet the most significant thing about the find was in the detail of its cartilage microstructure. We analysed the specimen using thin-sections, micro-CT scanning and scannning electron microscopy.
While these tools allowed us to confirm the cartilage was like modern shark cartilage, made up of little bundles called tesserae, the matrix holding these cartilage units together retained a cellular structure with remnant bone cells visible.
This implied that sharks most likely evolved from ancestors that had much more bone in the skeleton. The evolution of modern sharks was driven by their loss of bone, which suggested they are not as primitive as previously thought.
Per told me the other exciting thing about this shark is the light it throws on the evolution of the skeleton.
Modern sharks have skeletons of a peculiar tissue called prismatic calcified cartilage: cartilage that is mineralised, not as solid sheets, but as a mosaic of tiny mineral prisms.
The new Gogo shark shows what seems to be an early version of prismatic calcified cartilage: unlike the modern kind, the gaps between the prisms contain cells that resemble bone cells. This may help to explain the relationship between prismatic calcified cartilage and bone.
Modern sharks most likely evolved their lighter cartilaginous skeletons to become faster swimmers, to evade predators and swiftly catch their prey. The loss of bone in their skeleton is also supported by the fact the oldest and most basal of all jawed vertebrates, the placoderms, had heavy bony skeletons. In the most recent phylogenetic analysis of lower vertebrates, the placoderms appear as being basal – or at a common evolutionary level – to sharks.
This study further supports the idea that sharks must have evolved from bony primitive ancestors and lost their bone early on in the race as they acquired their predatory body shape.
Today when we see the sleek form of a shark in water we see a triumph of evolution, a masterpiece of fine tuning at the cellular level, resulting in their current ecological success.
In the rainforests of northern Queensland, scientists and government are getting serious about protecting wildlife, plants and ecosystems from climate change. A couple of years ago, Mount Baldy in the Herberton Range near Atherton became part of Queensland’s protected area estate, in part because the mountains will remain cool enough under global warming for many species to survive there.
The area will act as a refuge as species move from the warming lowlands. Now the Queensland government is using resilience to climate change as the primary factor in deciding what new national parks to add across the state.
Climate change poses a significant threat to animals, plants and ecosystems over the coming decades. Queensland’s World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforests are particularly vulnerable, as many species are adapted to a narrow temperature range.
To save wildlife we’ll need to mitigate climate change (reduce our greenhouse gas emissions) and adapt to the warming already coming our way. New national parks are just one of the methods Queensland is developing to give wildlife room to move.
From science to action
A whole host of research groups have worked on conservation in the Wet Tropics, supported by the Australian and Queensland governments. These include: the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Rainforest-CRC, Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility and the National Environmental Research Program.
Each of these groups has worked with the management authorities and built on previous research. That research is starting to pay off. Here’s how it worked.
Biodiversity research in the Rainforest-CRC fed directly into the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility program. In 2011 this research identified refugia that will remain cooler than average under climate change. This is due to buffering of temperature by cloud, forest canopy and the natural topography of the landscape.
The JCU team then combined projections of future species distributions with the refugia mapping to identify areas of high conservation importance. These areas have high refugial potential and both high current and future biodiversity value.
These analyses identified places that are currently cleared but could support many species in the future if the rainforest was restored and existing patches reconnected. This information directly informed the Wet Tropics Management Authority conservation plans and priorities and contributed to the new Mt Baldy National Park being gazetted.
The scientists, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, landholders and community groups worked together under a federal Caring for Country grant to figure out where and how to restore habitat in places that would connect remaining patches of rainforest. Connecting habitat patches is important. It allows animals to move across the landscape as the climate changes in order to stay in their comfort zone.
This led to the Making Connections project, which is actively revegetating and connecting rainforest areas. This helps build resilience for the region’s biodiversity.
The research was further developed and adapted nationally under the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to identify climate refuges Australia-wide.
The Queensland government then used this knowledge to make informed decisions about how to increase the state’s protected area estate in a way that would enhance the resilience of Queensland’s biodiversity into the future.
These examples clearly emphasise how science and research can have a real and positive influence on producing on-the-ground adaptation actions that will reduce the climate change impacts on biodiversity.
Australia to the world
Tropical ecosystems are the most important reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the Earth, but the tropics also face the greatest conflict between human well-being, sustainable development and a healthy environment.
The three most important regions for global biodiversity are South America, the Asia-Pacific and Central Africa. These tropical megadiverse regions contain approximately 80% of terrestrial biodiversity with a high proportion of threatened species. They also provide significant ecosystem services to the Earth and the well-being of billions of people.
However, tropical ecosystems are under considerable threat. The tropics have 40% of the global human population, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people and the fastest growth rates in human population, economic change and habitat loss.
Until recently, habitat loss and degradation was clearly the major environmental threat in the tropics. However, in the 21st century the impact of global climate change in combination with other human-induced impacts poses the greatest challenge of our time.
It has never been more important to provide and disseminate knowledge that informs policy and natural resource management. This can then enable effective adaptation and mitigation measures to maintain the resilience of tropical ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.
We need to establish a global network that builds on the Australian model by including empirical research on adaptation and mitigation, monitoring, regional and global capacity-building and information exchange across the globe.
There are positive signs that governments in the tropics are recognising the importance of this issue and the potential benefits of bringing their scientists, stakeholders and the public together to increase their capacity to adapt and mitigate.
The Singapore government has expressed interest in establishing an Asia-Pacific network in collaboration with our Australian network. Similarly, the Ecuadorian government has funded the initial development of a South American network in partnership with Yachay Tech University.
We need to make the momentum created in Australia snowball into a global network of people, organisations and monitoring sites across the tropics. This will enable us to make the right decisions in the face of the combined threats of global climate change, habitat loss and illegal logging and poaching. This will hopefully reduce the negative impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and on the livelihoods of the growing economies and populations of the tropics.
Stephen Williams is Professor, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change & Prometeo – Visiting Scientist Yachay Tech University, Ecuador. at James Cook University.
Brett Scheffers is Assistant Professor at University of Florida.
Lorena Falconi is Research worker, Terrestrial Ecosystems and Climate Change at James Cook University.
A plethora of economic studies on the costs of climate action share a common message: action on climate change is cheap, and delaying it will be costly.
This has implications for Australia’s post-2020 emissions targets, to be decided by government the in coming weeks or months. We’ve reviewed the evidence.
The results are published in two short reports for WWF Australia. Our first brief highlighted that there is a general consensus amongst economists on the costs of mitigating climate change. That consensus is invisible to most, but it is clear across all major reports and studies: the cost of reducing emissions for Australia, and the world, is low.
Our second brief, released today, shows another points of emerging consensus: that the costs of delaying action on climate change outweigh the benefits.
The cost of taking action is low
All major studies find that the costs of achieving deep reductions in carbon emissions are a small fraction of future economic growth. And that is before extra benefits such as reduced air pollution and more stable energy prices are taken into account. These are significant benefits that most models ignore. The co-benefits of the US Clean Air Act have been estimated to be 30 times greater than the costs of compliance.
Australia’s economy will keep growing comparatively rapidly, to perhaps two and a half times its current size by 2050, while emissions are cut – and cut deeply if strong effort is made.
With each successive study, the estimated cost of cutting emissions to a given level has dropped, or the emissions reductions achievable at a given cost increased. More is possible at lower cost than we thought just a few years ago.
This is for several reasons.
First, the technological progress with many low-emissions technologies consistently outpaces projections, LED lighting and electric cars being among the examples.
Second, the costs of technologies are falling much faster than expected. Solar panels are the prime example. Astonishingly, large-scale solar panel power
stations are already only half the cost that the Treasury’s 2008 and 2011 modelling studies estimated they would be in the year 2030.
Third, the underlying drivers of emissions growth are not as strong now than many thought they would be, including because of the end of the mining boom.
Fourth, analysts and businesses are becoming aware of ever more ways in which emissions can be reduced.
The costs of delay
Given the plummeting costs of renewable energy it is reasonable to ask why doesn’t Australia wait until costs are even lower and then make the transition?
Unfortunately despite the falling price of renewable energy technology, delaying mitigation has a range of significant costs. It reviews the literature on delay, showing that the costs of delay outweigh any potential benefits.
The longer that emissions increase or plateau, the steeper reductions in the future must be, because greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. The longer we wait, the greater the risk that global climate goals get out of reach. Delaying global action by 15 years effectively pushes the globally agreed 2C target out of reach.
Delaying action also means relying upon currently commercially unavailable technologies. Such technologies include the large-scale use of bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The IPCC finds that large-scale deployment of such “BECCS” technology could be necessary to keep warming to 2C under a scenario of delayed action.
Taking it easy at first and going for stronger action later would likely come at a high economic cost. A range of models have found that delaying global mitigation by 15 years could double or triple the cost of keeping to an overall carbon budget.
A key factor is that delay leads to the “lock-in” of emissions intensive infrastructure which becomes obsolete when action is taken to cut emissions. And rather than changing economic structures gradually, delayed action requires sudden adjustment that could cause economic and social disruption.
This is not just a question of economic efficiency but also an issue of intergenerational equity. Future generations are likely to bear the stronger impacts of climate change, and if we delay they will also face much higher costs in reducing emissions.
Avoiding a fossilised economy
The risk of carbon lock-in and high adjustment costs from delay are particularly strong for Australia given our emissions intensive economy, exports and resources.
Global coal demand will fall under strong global climate action; already China’s coal demand is tailing off despite the Chinese economy continuing to grow rapidly. Some of Australia’s mining and coal transport infrastructure may be left stranded. Indeed, over-investment in the coal industry during the mining boom means that some infrastructure may already need to be prematurely retired. This poses particular risks for low-grade, high-cost coal.
There is significant financial risk in continued fossil fuel investment.
The reality is that a large share of global fossil fuel resources cannot be used if the world is to limit global warming to 2C. The lion’s share of coal resources in Australia will be “unburnable”. For developed countries in the Asia Pacific -principally Australia- this share of “unburnable” coal could be above 90%.
Strong global climate change action is in Australia’s interest, as acknowledged in the government’s issues paper on the post-2020 emissions target. What also needs to be understood is that strong and early domestic emissions reductions are also in Australia’s short and long-term national interest. Dragging our feet is not a smart, or fair, idea.
Luke Kemp is PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy at Australian National University.
Frank Jotzo is Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at Australian National University.