Australian government was ‘blindsided’ by UN recommendation to list Great Barrier Reef as in-danger. But it’s no great surprise


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Jon C. Day, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, James Cook UniversityThe Australian government on Tuesday expressed shock at a draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. But the recommendation has been looming for some time.

The recommendation, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), acknowledges Australia’s commitment to implementing the Reef 2050 Plan, an overarching framework to protect the natural wonder for future generations.

But the “outstanding universal value” of the Great Barrier Reef has continued to decline.

The draft decision will now be considered at the World Heritage Committee meeting, to be held online next month. The development is significant for several reasons – not least that Australia’s progress under the Paris Agreement is being linked to its stewardship of the reef.

Last year, severe bleaching struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

What did UNESCO say?

In recommending the in-danger listing, UNESCO and IUCN cited a 2019 report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority which found the ecosystem’s long-term outlook had deteriorated from poor to very poor. It said global warming had also triggered coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 – which were followed by another mass bleaching event in 2020.

The report said Australia’s progress on the Reef 2050 Plan “has been insufficient in meeting key targets”. It said the plan requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular on urgently addressing threats from climate change, and improving water quality and land management.

Among other recommendations, the draft decision called on the international community to “implement the most ambitious actions to address climate change […] and fulfil their responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef”.




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‘Severely threatened and deteriorating’: global authority on nature lists the Great Barrier Reef as critical


The 2020 coral bleaching event was the second-worst in more than two decades.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

No real surprise

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s said the government was “blindsided” by the draft recommendation. However the move has been a long time coming.

As noted above, the government’s 2019 Outlook Report documented the impacts and threats to the Great Barrier Reef in no uncertain terms, and identified climate change as the most serious threat.

There were other indicators the recommendation was looming. In 2020, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook listed the Great Barrier Reef as “critical” due to threats including climate change and poor water quality. The rating – the worst on a four-point scale — was a decline from the 2017 rating of “significant concern”.

And in 2018, a report predicted that without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 World Heritage coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will cease to be “functioning ecosystems by the end of the century”.

Finally in 2012, the World Heritage Committee warned the Great Barrier Reef could be placed on the in-danger list “in the absence of substantial progress”.




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Climate change isn’t the only concern

While climate change is a major concern in the draft decision, it is but one of numerous pressures on the Great Barrier Reef. Poor water quality due to nutrient and sediment runoff – the latter linked to land clearing – are also big problems.

The IUCN outlook report said climate change is the biggest threat to all the world’s natural heritage places. In this regard, this week’s draft decision sets an important precedent for the World Heritage Committee. It would seem the committee is now prepared to directly address the issue of climate change, after being less so inclined in previous years.

The Reef 2050 Plan does not adequately address the climate change threat. The UNESCO report calls on Australia to correct this, and ensure the plan sufficiently addresses other threats including water quality.

Decisions by the World Heritage Committee are not binding on any country. Still, we expect the committee’s concerns to result in Australia amending the Reef 2050 Plan to better acknowledge climate change as a significant issue.

The draft decision will be considered at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in July, chaired by China and comprising 21 countries.

Two snorkelers
Getting placed on the in-danger list isn’t likely to impact tourism.
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An end to tourism?

The experience of other major tourist destinations suggests an in-danger listing may not damage tourism at the Great Barrier Reef, as some have feared.

Take the Everglades in the United States, Belize in the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. An analysis of these World Heritage properties showed no discernible tourism downturn after an in-danger listing. However, if the Great Barrier Reef’s condition continues to deteriorate, industries that rely on a healthy Reef are likely to endure long-term damage.

An in-danger listing is not permanent, nor does it mean the Great Barrier Reef will be permanently removed from the World Heritage list. Currently, 53 World Heritage properties are on the in-danger list; others were taken off the list once concerns were addressed.

The Great Barrier Reef will continue to be harmed until nations collectively adopt more ambitious climate goals, global emissions of greenhouse gases fall to net-zero and sea temperatures stabilise.

Without real and urgent actions at all levels — global, national, and local — the values that make all heritage places special will decline. That makes it less likely that future generations will be able to enjoy these wonders as we have done.




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The Conversation


Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, Associate Professor, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Senate knocks out regulation allowing ARENA to fund carbon capture and blue hydrogen


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe Senate on Tuesday night disallowed a government regulation that would have allowed the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to invest in technologies such as carbon capture and storage and blue hydrogen using fossil fuel.

Labor, Greens and crossbench votes defeated the regulation, so preventing the expansion of ARENA’s remit beyond its present area of solar and wind renewable energy.

The regulation would have enabled ARENA to support a wide range of technologies.

They would have included energy efficiency projects, carbon capture technologies, blue hydrogen from gas using CCS, energy storage technologies to back up renewable energy, technologies that reduce emissions from aluminium and steel, and soil carbon.

The $192.5 million new funding involved included money for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, microgrids in rural and regional areas, and technologies to make heavy trucks more fuel efficient and to reduce the energy consumption of heavy industry.

Energy minister Angus Taylor tweeted after the vote: “Labor have shown their true colours – opposing investment in new clean technologies which will create jobs and economic opportunities”.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said the disallowance was “a massive blow to this coal and gas-fired government”.

“First the Liberals tried to abolish ARENA and then redirect its funds to coal and gas, but by backing the Greens motion, the Senate has just saved ARENA,” Bandt said.

Labor’s energy spokesman Chris Bowen tweeted: “The LNP keeps attacking ARENA and the CEFC [Clean Energy Finance Corporation] and Labor will continue to defend them”.

Mark Vaile declines chancellor position after campaign over coal connection

Education Minister Alan Tudge and outspoken Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon have condemned the campaign that led former deputy prime minister Mark Vaile to withdrew from becoming University of Newcastle chancellor because of his association with the coal industry.

University staff, alumni and a group of donors to the university reacted strongly at the prospect of Vaile, who is chairman of Whitehaven Coal, taking the position.

The university is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2025, a policy Vaile had said he supported.

But after the backlash he said, “I’ve just taken the view that it’s in the best interests of the university and the community that it serves if I decline the invitation and withdraw from the process.”

Tudge said it was very concerning Vaile had “been forced to turn down this role because of ideological pressure”.

“At a time when we are trying to promote and enforce free speech and academic freedom on campus, we should not have a very competent person forced out of an important job because of this cancel culture,” Tudge said.

Fitzgibbon, who represents the seat of Hunter, went further. “A new form of McCarthyism has crept into Australian culture and it’s alive and well in the Hunter region, deep in coal economy heartland”, he told parliament on Tuesday night..

He said “this 21st Century version of the Cold War doctrine has been on display at our local university where a quite extraordinary, misleading, ideological, and shrill campaign” resulted in Vaile declining the offer to be chancellor.

Fitzgibbon said “the crime” Vaile had been “publicly shamed for” was his association with the coal industry.

“It’s a slippery slope. Today the excessive progressives target those associated with the coal industry. No doubt tomorrow it will be anyone associated with the oil, gas, and fuel refining industries. What’s next? The meat processing industry? The steel manufacturing sector?”

Fitzgibbon pointed out that while chairing Whitehaven Coal, Vaile also chaired an investment fund which had $1 billion worth of wind and solar technologies under management.

Vaile was deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants are laudable, but let’s not forget its bloody conflicts with the giants


Bill Laurance, James Cook UniversityWild elephants are awe-inspiring — even if they’re trying to kill you, as I discovered in 2004.

At the time I was studying how poachers and loggers threaten native mammals in Africa’s Congo Basin. I was sneaking up on a herd of forest elephants when they suddenly charged, rushing at me like enraged, out-of-control bulldozers. With the angry animals hot on my heels, I barely escaped by diving into a tangle of vines, shuddering with fear but oddly enthralled by it all, too.

Many residents of southern China must be feeling similarly. A herd of 15 Asian elephants, led by adult females, departed last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, near China’s border with Myanmar and Laos. Since then they’ve travelled about 500 kilometres northward, and are now approaching the bustling city of Kunming and its seven million inhabitants.

No one knows exactly where the elephants are going, or why. But two things are clear: the elephants were probably struggling to survive in their native habitat, and Chinese efforts to save the elephants clash with the nation’s aggressive strategies of investment and global development.

Hope for the homeless

As I’ve seen elsewhere, in Africa and Southeast Asia, hungry wild elephants can severely damage human crops, flattening gardens and orchards in their quest for a free meal.

During their sojourn in China, the behemoths — which can weigh over five tonnes as adults (more than three cars) — have indeed been helping themselves to farmers’ crops and anything else they deem edible from local villages and townships. In fact, they’ve caused more than US$1 million in damage to crops so far.

This whole journey has captured the imagination of millions of Chinese citizens, with state broadcaster CCTV carrying a 24-hour live feed of the spectacle.

At first blush, this sounds like a scenario that could go very badly for the elephants. When pachyderms and people collide, elephants usually lose.

But hope remains for the wandering herd. Asian elephants are a legally protected species in China.

Hundreds of police officers assisted by drones have been monitoring the intrepid animals, while wildlife officials are trying to steer them away from populated areas with food baits and roadblocks involving hundreds of trucks. So far, some 3,500 people have been evacuated temporarily to clear a path for the elephants.

Missing the big picture

Such efforts are laudable but misplaced. They address only the symptoms of environmental stress (displaced elephants) but not the “diseases” afflicting elephants in China and beyond.

Firstly, the wandering elephants may well have been forced to move because their home in southern China has been devastated by human development.

Even 15 years ago, when I first visited the Xishuangbanna region, the native rainforests there were being devastated, especially by clearing for exotic rubber-tree plantations.

Rubber-tree plantation in the Xishuangbanna region.
In southern China, most native rainforests have been felled for crops such as rubber-tree plantations, as shown here in the Xishuangbanna region.
William Laurance

As a result, only about 300 wild elephants survive in all of China today.

Secondly, even with government efforts since 2018 to ban domestic ivory trading, illegal ivory is still being consumed at a terrifying rate.

This bloody trade is one of the main drivers of elephant poaching in Asia and Africa. Chinese citizens working overseas have been widely implicated in wildlife smuggling activities, including illegal ivory.




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Finally, as it promotes new roads, dams and other large developments, China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which now spans 139 nations worldwide, is rapidly increasing the effects of habitat destruction and human persecution on elephants and other native wildlife.

In Latin America, for example, entrepreneurs and workers from China are causing a dramatic increase in illegal poaching of jaguars, the teeth and body parts of which are being used to produce certain traditional Chinese “medicines”.

China-funded road-construction project in the Congo Basin.
William Laurance

Take-home lessons

What can we learn from China’s wandering elephants? At the outset, it’s clear many people, in China and beyond, are motivated far more easily by large, charismatic animals such as elephants than they are by rather nebulous concepts like ecosystem loss and degradation.

So, as we seek environmental sustainability in our densely populated world, we need to tell more evocative stories that inspire hope and capture the popular imagination.




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China’s wandering elephants also show us nature often needs large expanses of habitat to survive.

The potential habitat for elephants in China has been severely reduced and fragmented, and now totals less than 250,000 hectares overall in the critical Xishuangbanna region.

Globally, scores of large-bodied species such as elephants and apex predators such as tigers are in big trouble because of the fatal one-two punch of habitat destruction and human persecution. To sustain these iconic species, we urgently need to conserve Earth’s remaining large ecosystems.

Further, China’s homeless elephants could give us a glimpse into the future. On a planet where most native ecosystems are being sliced and diced to meet humanity’s needs, and where the climate is changing apace, wild animals like the Chinese elephants may increasingly need to pull up roots and move to new territories.

Forest elephant killed by poachers in the Congo Basin.
A forest elephant killed by poachers in the Republic of Congo. The animal’s face was hacked off with machetes to remove its valuable ivory tusks.
William Laurance

At great expense and effort, China is attempting to save its beleaguered band of elephants as they search for a new home.

But as the nation responsible for more habitat destruction, wildlife poaching and greenhouse-gas emissions than any other, China bears a special responsibility to promote sustainable development — not just inside China but overseas as well.

Let’s applaud China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants while we bear in mind that, as a nation and economic superpower, it has far more left to do to ensure our planet remains liveable for vulnerable wildlife — and for us too.




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The Conversation


Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Top economists call for budget measures to speed the switch to electric cars


Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityAustralia’s top economists overwhelmingly back government measures to speed the transition to electric cars in order to meet emission reduction targets.

An exclusive poll of 62 of Australia’s preeminent economists — selected by their peers — finds 51 back measures to boost the take-up of electric cars including subsidising public charging stations, subsidising the purchase of all-electric vehicles, and setting a date to ban the import of traditionally-powered cars.

Only 11 oppose such measures, three of them because they prefer a carbon tax.

Six of the 51 who supported special measures said they did so reluctantly, as their preferred alternative would be a carbon price or a carbon tax, rather than subsidising “one alternative out of many to reduce emissions”.

Cars account for roughly half of Australia’s transport emissions, making them about 8% of Australia’s total emissions.

Yet Australia’s take-up of electric vehicles is dwarfed by the rest of the world.

On one measure, all-electric cars accounted for just 0.7% of new car sales in Australia in 2020 compared to 5% in China and 3.5% in the European Union.

Australia has no domestic car industry to protect, meaning industry policy concerns needn’t hold back the transition.




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Norway plans to outlaw new petrol car sales from 2025; Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Israel from 2030; and California and Britain from 2035.

Asked whether Australia should take action to speed the transition, eight in ten of the 62 economists selected by the Economic Society said it should.



Economic Society of Australia/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The results represent a departure for a profession whose usual advice is to avoid interfering with markets.

One participant, University of NSW professor Gigi Foster said an important question needed to be answered in order to justify government intervention: “what is the market failure here?”

The market failure was pollution, imposing costs on the community beyond the drivers of conventionally-powered cars and on the planet by pushing up global temperatures.

Broad support: subsidies for charging points

If it wasn’t to be dealt with by a carbon price, measures that sped up the switchover to electric vehicles could achieve some of the same effect.

By far the most popular measure of six presented to the panellists who supported government action was subsidising public charging points, backed by 84%.

The next most popular was removing the luxury car tax from electric-only vehicles. At present the 35% tax applies to cars valued at more than $69,152, and $79,659 for fuel-efficient vehicles.

43% supported making charging points compulsory in new homes and new car parks. 39% supported setting a date to ban the import of petrol and diesel cars.



Matthew Butlin, who chairs South Australia’s Productivity Commission, noted that much of Australia was not urban and unlikely to be served by charging points for some time.

Without government measures to speed the installation of remote charging stations, many buyers would be reluctant to go electric, even if most of their driving was in cities.

When they were in place, there would be a good case for banning the import of petrol and diesel vehicles, but not until then.




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Others wanted to hold off on banning the import of conventionally-powered cars until Australia had a lower-emissions mix of electricity.

Macquarie University’s Lisa Magnani said that with three quarters of Australia’s electricity generated from coal, electric vehicles created considerable emissions.

The Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood disagreed, saying “network effects” built a case for switching over early.

Network effects build on themselves

The more people switched, the more charging stations would be built and the lower electric vehicle prices would drop, driving more people to switch, and increasing the benefits of decarbonising the electricity supply.

The sooner Australia swapped over, the easier it would be to get to net zero emissions by 2050 without the need for a “cash for clunkers” style scheme to buy back polluting vehicles.

Setting 2035 as the date for banning imports of petrol-powered cars as recommended this year by the International Energy Agency would give buyers time to adjust while the charging infrastructure developed.




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Tax specialist John Freebairn said electric cars were already heavily subsidised by escaping the fuel excise used to fund roads, despite the efforts of some states to plug the gap.

Sydney University economist Stefanie Schurer argued on the other hand bulky and polluting sport utility vehicles were effectively subsidised because of the tax benefits they attracted when used for work.

Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson of the Crawford School of Public Policy said smoothing the transition had become urgent.

Smooth transition now “urgent”

It took only ten years from 1903-13 for the United States to switch from horse-drawn to petrol-driven vehicles, and technology take-up was quicker today, particularly in Australia.

Other economists surveyed noted that there was much that could be done to reduce harmful emissions in addition to going electric.

Sue Richardson said Australia should impose serious limits on the tailpipe emissions of new cars. Australia is unusual among developed nations in not having such a limit, making it a favoured market for high-emission cars.




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Rana Roy said a better approach would be to limit transport itself through remote working and efforts to encourage walking and cycling. Subsidies for electric cars could send such moves backwards.

When responses to the survey were weighted by the confidence respondents had in them on a scale of 1 to 10, support of special measures to drive the transition remained about as strong, backed by eight in ten of the economists surveyed.



Economic Society of Australia/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Detailed responses:

The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.