Is it too cheap to visit the ‘priceless’ Great Barrier Reef?



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Would you pay more if you thought it would help?
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Michael Vardon, Australian National University

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s finest natural wonders. It’s also extraordinarily cheap to visit – perhaps too cheap.

While a visit to the reef can be part of an expensive holiday, the daily fee to enter the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself is a measly A$6.50. In contrast, earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and paid a US$750 fee, and the charge has since been doubled to US$1,500.

To me, seeing the reef was better than visiting the gorillas. Personally, I would be happy to pay more to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Does this mean we’re undervaluing our most important natural wonder? And if we do ask visitors to pay a higher price, would it actually help the reef or simply harm tourism numbers?


Read more: Money can’t buy me love, but you can put a price on a tree


Putting dollar values on the natural world can be a heated topic. Earlier this year Deloitte Access Economics valued the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion “as an Australian economic, social and iconic asset”, but was met with the retort that its true value is priceless.

The A$56 billion estimate was based on surveys that measured “consumer surplus and non-use benefits”. This common research technique involves asking people what they would be willing to pay to get a particular benefit. For example, the entrance fee for the reef is A$6.50 but if I am willing to pay A$50 (say), that equates to a consumer surplus of A$43.50. In other words, I am receiving A$43.50 worth of value that I did not have to pay for.

I understand that some people instinctively object to the idea of trying to put monetary values on things like the Great Barrier Reef. But I think valuation helps, on balance, because it offers a way to assimilate environmental information into the economic processes through which most decisions are made. Money makes the world go around, after all.

However this should be done on the proviso that the valuation is systematic and based on sound environmental and economic data.

Accounting for the Great Barrier Reef

The process by which these values are calculated is called “environmental accounting”, and estimates have to meet international standards known as the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting or SEEA in order to be valid. This builds on the System of National Accounts (which among many other things gives us the GDP indicator). In this accounting, as in business accounting, the values recorded are exchange values – that is, what someone paid (or was likely to pay) for a good, service or asset. For assets that aren’t regularly traded, this figure can be based on either previous sales or expected future income.

It does not use willingness-to-pay measures. The Deloitte report also estimated exchange values in line with accounting values, with the Great Barrier Reef contributing A$6.4 billion to the economy through tourism, fishing, recreation, and research and scientific management.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has a huge amount of data on the Great Barrier Reef, covering the physical state of the reef and its surroundings, the economic activity occurring in the region, and more besides.

Unsurprisingly, tourism is the region’s most valuable industry, contributing A$3.8 billion in gross value added in 2015-16 (see Table 1 here). That year the Marine Park had 2.3 million visitors, who together paid just under A$9 million in park entry charges (see Table 4 here).

Ecosystem services are the contributions of the natural world to benefits enjoyed by people. For example, farmers grow crops that are pollinated by insects and use nutrients found in the soil. These things are not explicitly paid for, but by examining economic transactions we can estimate their value.

Surprisingly, the value of ecosystem services used by tourism was A$600 million – just half the value of the ecosystem services used by the agriculture industry.

Value of ecosystem services (in millions of dollars) used by selected industries in the Great Barrier Reef Region in 2014-15.
ABS

The result is partly explained by the way things are valued. Agricultural products are bought and sold in markets, whereas the Great Barrier Reef is a public asset and the fee for visiting it is set by governments, not by a market.

On these numbers, paying A$6.50 to visit one of the great treasures of the world is a bargain indeed. But what does it mean for the reef itself?

Reef under threat

The reef is under pressure from many factors, including climate change, nutrient runoff, tourism impacts, and fishing. Managing the pressure requires resources, and it makes sense to ask those who use it to pay for it.

Increased funding to help manage these pressures would therefore be good. What’s more, governments could conceivably also use natural resources to generate money to fund other public goods and services, such as roads, education, health, defence, and so on.

Before you protest at this idea, ask yourself: why should the Great Barrier Reef not be used to generate revenue for government? Other natural resources are used this way. The federal and Queensland governments are pursuing economic benefits from the coal in the nearby Galilee Basin. If government revenue from the Great Barrier Reef were increased, it might reduce the need for revenue from elsewhere.

So what next?

Environmental accounting offers a clear way to assess such trade-offs, and will hopefully lead to better decisions. To achieve this we will need:

  • Regular environmental-economic accounts from trusted institutions like the ABS
  • Governments and business to incorporate this new accounting into their strategic planning and management (including, in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, assessing the likely revenue from increased marine park fees)
  • The public to use the accounts to hold our government and business leaders to
    account.

The ConversationThe last will no doubt make some uncomfortable, while the second will take some time. The first is already a reality. I hope others take the time to understand and analyse the accounts already available, and that we get as much debate about managing the environment as we do about managing the economy.

Michael Vardon, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science



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How the Great Barrier Reef can be helped to help repair the damaged reef.
AIMS/Neal Cantin, CC BY-ND

Ken Anthony, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from recent unprecedented coral bleaching events. But the answer to part of its recovery could lie in the reef itself, with a little help.

In our recent article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we argue that at least two potential interventions show promise as means to boost climate resilience and tolerance in the reef’s corals: assisted gene flow
and assisted evolution.

Both techniques use existing genetic material on the reef to breed hardier corals, and do not involve genetic engineering.

But why are such interventions needed? Can’t the reef simply repair itself?

Damage to the reef, so far

Coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 took its biggest toll on the reef to date, with two-thirds of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem impacted in these back-to-back events. The consequence was widespread damage.

Bleached corals on the central Great Barrier Reef at the peak of the heat wave in March 2017. Most branching corals in the photo were dead six months later.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will dampen coral bleaching risk in the long term, but will not prevent it. Even with strong action to tackle climate change, more warming is locked in.

So while emissions reductions are essential for the future of the reef, other actions are now also needed.

Even in the most optimistic future, reef-building corals need to become more resilient. Continued improvement of water quality, controlling Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and managing no-take areas will all help.

But continued stress from climate change – in frequency and intensity – increasingly overwhelms the natural resilience despite the best conventional management efforts. Although natural processes of adaptation and acclimation are in play, they are unlikely to be fast enough to keep up with any rate of global warming.

So to boost the reef’s resilience in the face of climate change we need to consider new interventions – and urgently.

That’s why we believe assisted gene flow and assisted evolution could help the reef.

Delaying their development could mean that climate change degrades the reef beyond repair, and before we can save key species.

What is assisted gene flow?

The idea here is to move warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef. Corals in the far north are naturally adapted to 1C to 2C higher summer temperatures than corals further south.

This means there is an opportunity to build resistance to future warming in corals in the south under strong climate change mitigation, or to decades of warming under weaker mitigation.

There is already natural genetic connectivity of coral populations across most of the reef. But the rate of larval flow from the warm north to the south is limited, partly because of the South Equatorial Current that flows west across the Pacific.

The South Equatorial Current splits into the north-flowing Gulf of Papua Current and south-flowing East Australian Current off the coast of north Queensland. This means coral larvae spawned in the warm north are often more likely to stay in the north.

So manually moving some of the northern corals south could help overcome that physical limitation of natural north-to-south larval flow. If enough corals could be moved it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster with more heat-resistant coral stock.

We could start safe tests at a subset of well-chosen reefs to understand how warm-adapted populations can be spread to reefs further south.

These two-year old corals reared in AIMS’s National Sea Simulator are hybrids between different species of the genus Acropora. They are the results of artificial selection under experimental climate change and show tolerance to prolonged heat stress expected in the future.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

What is assisted evolution?

While assisted gene flow may be effective for southern or recently degraded reefs, it will not be enough or feasible for all reefs or species. Here, we argue that assisted evolution could help.

Assisted evolution is artificial selection on steroids. It combines multiple approaches that target the coral host and its essential microbial symbionts.

These are aimed at producing a hardier coral without the use of genetic engineering. Experiments at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are already making progress, with results yet to be published.

First, evolution of algal symbionts in isolation from the coral host has been fast-tracked to resist higher levels of heat stress. When symbionts are made to reengage with the coral host, benefits to bleaching resistance are still small, but with more work we expect to see a hardier symbiosis.

Secondly, experiments have created new genetic diversity of corals through hybridisation and researchers have selected these artificially for increased climate resilience.

Natural hybridisation happens only occasionally on the reef, so this result gives us new options for climate hardening corals using existing genetic stocks.

The danger of doing nothing?

The right time to start any new intervention is when the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

Assisted gene flow and assisted evolution represent manageable risk because they use genetic material already present on the reef. The interventions speed up naturally occurring processes and do not involve genetic engineering.


Read more: Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef


These interventions would not introduce or produce new species. Assisted gene flow would simply enhance the natural flow of warm-adapted corals into areas on the reef that desperately need more heat tolerance.

Risk of increasing the spread of diseases may also be low because most parts of the Reef are already interconnected. A full understanding of risks is an area of continued research.

The ConversationThese are just two examples of new tools that could help build climate resilience on the reef. Other interventions are developing and should be put on the table for open discussion.

Ken Anthony, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Research Program Leader – A Healthy and Sustainable Great Barrier Reef, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Marine molecular ecologist, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to work out which coral reefs will bleach, and which might be spared


Clothilde Emilie Langlais, CSIRO; Andrew Lenton, CSIRO, and Scott Heron, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Regional variations in sea surface temperature, related to seasons and El Niño, could be crucial for the survival of coral reefs, according to our new research. This suggests that we should be able to identify the reefs most at risk of mass bleaching, and those that are more likely to survive unscathed.

Healthy coral reefs support diverse ecosystems, hosting 25% of all marine fish species. They provide food, coastal protection and livelihoods for at least 500 million people.

But global warming, coupled with other pressures such as nutrient and sediment input, changes in sea level, waves, storms, ventilation, hydrodynamics, and ocean acidification, could lead to the end of the world’s coral reefs in a couple of decades.


Read more: How much coral has died in the Great Barrier Reef’s worst bleaching event?


Climate warming is the major cause of stress for corals. The world just witnessed an event described as the “longest global coral die-off on record”, and scientists have been raising the alarm about coral bleaching for decades.

The first global-scale mass bleaching event happened in 1998, destroying 16% of the world coral reefs. Unless greenhouse emissions are drastically reduced, the question is no longer if coral bleaching will happen again, but when and how often?

To help protect coral reefs and their ecosystems, effective management and conservation strategies are crucial. Our research shows that understanding the relationship between natural variations of sea temperature and human-driven ocean warming will help us identify the areas that are most at risk, and also those that are best placed to provide safe haven.

A recurrent threat

Bleaching happens when sea temperatures are unusually high, causing the corals to expel the coloured algae that live within their tissues. Without these algae, corals are unable to reproduce or to build their skeletons properly, and can ultimately die.

The two most devastating global mass bleaching events on record – in 1998 and 2016 – were both triggered by El Niño. But when water temperatures drop back to normal, corals can often recover.

Certain types of coral can also acclimatise to rising sea temperatures. But as our planet warms, periods of bleaching risk will become more frequent and more severe. As a consequence, corals will have less and less time to recover between bleaching events.

We are already witnessing a decline in coral reefs. Global populations have declined by 1-2% per year in response to repeated bleaching events. Closer to home, the Great Barrier Reef lost 50% of its coral cover between 1985 and 2012.

A non-uniform response to warming

While the future of worldwide coral reefs looks dim, not all reefs will be at risk of recurrent bleaching at the same time. In particular, reefs located south of 15ºS (including the Great Barrier Reef, as well as islands in south Polynesia and Melanesia) are likely to be the last regions to be affected by harmful recurrent bleaching.

We used to think that Micronesia’s reefs would be among the first to die off, because the climate is warming faster there than in many other places. But our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, shows that the overall increase in temperature is not the only factor that affects coral bleaching response.

In fact, the key determinant of recurrent bleaching is the natural variability of ocean temperature. Under warming, temperature variations associated with seasons and climate processes like El Niño influence the pace of recurrent bleaching, and explain why some reefs will experience bleaching risk sooner than others in the future.

Different zones of the Pacific are likely to experience differing amounts of climate variability.
Author provided
Degrees of future bleaching risk for corals in the three main Pacific zones.
Author provided

Our results suggest that El Niño events will continue to be the major drivers of mass bleaching events in the central Pacific. As average ocean temperatures rise, even mild El Niño events will have the potential to trigger widespread bleaching, meaning that these regions could face severe bleaching every three to five years within just a few decades. In contrast, only the strongest El Niño events will cause mass bleaching in the South Pacific.

In the future, the risk of recurrent bleaching will be more seasonally driven in the South Pacific. Once the global warming signal pushes summer temperatures to dangerously warm levels, the coral reefs will experience bleaching events every summers. In the western Pacific, the absence of natural variations of temperatures initially protects the coral reefs, but only a small warming increase can rapidly transition the coral reefs from a safe haven to a permanent bleaching situation.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help


One consequence is that, for future projections of coral bleaching risk, the global warming rate is important but the details of the regional warming are not so much. The absence of consensus about regional patterns of warming across climate models is therefore less of an obstacle than previously thought, because globally averaged warming provided by climate models combined with locally observed sea temperature variations will give us better projections anyway.

The ConversationUnderstanding the regional differences can help reef managers identify the reef areas that are at high risk of recurring bleaching events, and which ones are potential temporary safe havens. This can buy us valuable time in the battle to protect the world’s corals.

Clothilde Emilie Langlais, research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Andrew Lenton, Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO, and Scott Heron, Physical Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The new Great Barrier Reef pollution plan is better, but still not good enough


Jon Brodie, James Cook University; Alana Grech, James Cook University, and Laurence McCook, James Cook University

The draft water quality improvement plan, released by the federal and Queensland governments this week, aims to reduce the pollution flowing from water catchments to the Great Barrier Reef over the next five years.

It is part of the overarching Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan to protect and manage the reef until mid-century.

Water quality is one of the biggest threats to the reef’s health, but the new guidelines still fall short of what’s required, given the available scientific evidence.


Read more: Cloudy issue: we need to fix the Barrier Reef’s murky waters.


The draft plan, which is open for comment until October, presents several important and commendable advances in the management of water quality on the Great Barrier Reef. It addresses all land-based sources of water pollution (agricultural, urban, public lands and industrial) and includes social, cultural and economic values for the first time.

The principal sources of pollution are nitrogen loss from fertiliser use on sugar cane lands, fine sediment loss from erosion on grazing lands, and pesticide losses from cropping lands. These are all major risk factors for the Great Barrier Reef.

The draft plan also presents updated water quality targets that call for reductions in run-off nutrients and fine sediments by 2025. Each of the 35 catchments that feeds onto the reef has its own individual set of targets, thus helping to prioritise pollution-reduction measures across a region almost as large as Sweden.

The reef’s still suffering

The Great Barrier Reef suffered coral bleaching and death over vast areas in 2016, and again this year. The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement, released with the draft water quality plan (and on which one of us, Jon Brodie, was an author), reports:

Key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems continue to be in poor condition. This is largely due to the collective impact of land run-off associated with past and ongoing catchment development, coastal development activities, extreme weather events and climate change impacts such as the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events.

Stronger action on the local and regional causes of coral death are seen to be essential for recovery at locations where poor water quality is a major cause of reef decline. These areas include mid-shelf reefs in the Wet Tropics region damaged by crown of thorns starfish, and inner-shelf reefs where turbid waters stop light reaching coral and seagrass. Human-driven threats, especially land-based pollution, must be effectively managed to reduce the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

But although the draft plan provides improved targets and a framework for reducing land-based pollution, it still doesn’t reflect the severity of the situation. The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement reports that “current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets” by 2025.

This is because the draft plan does not provide any major new funding, legislation or other initiatives to drive down land-based pollution any further. As the statement explains:

To accelerate the change in on-ground management, improvements to governance, program design, delivery and evaluation systems are urgently needed. This will require greater incorporation of social and economic factors, better targeting and prioritisation, exploration of alternative management options and increased support and resources.


Read more: The Great Barrier Reef’s safety net is becoming more complex but less effective


The draft plan calls on farmers to go “beyond minimum standards” for practices such as fertiliser use in sugar cane, and minimum pasture cover in cattle grazing lands. But even the minimum standards are unlikely to be widely adopted unless governments implement existing legislation to enforce the current standards.

The draft plan is also silent on the impact of land clearing on water quality, and the conversion of grazing land to intensively farmed crops such as sugar cane, as proposed in the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia.

The federal and Queensland governments have committed A$2 billion over ten years to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Under the draft plan, about half of this (A$100 million a year) will be spent on water quality management. This is not an increase in resourcing, but rather the same level of funding that has been provided for the past seven years.

More than loose change

There is a very strong business case for major increases in funding to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Even with conservative assumptions, the economics firm Jacobs has estimated that protecting the industries that depend on the reef will require A$830 million in annual funding – more than four times the current level.


Read more: What’s the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless.


The draft water quality plan acknowledges the need for a “step change” in reef management, and to “accelerate our collective efforts to improve the land use practices of everyone living and working in the catchments adjacent to the Reef”.

This need is echoed in many other reports, both government and scientific. For example, the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement makes several wide-ranging recommendations.

One of them is to make better use of existing legislation and policies, including both voluntary and regulatory approaches, to improve water quality standards.

This recommendation applies to both Commonwealth and Queensland laws. These include the federal Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, which restricts or bans any activities that “may pollute water in a manner harmful to animals and plants in the Marine Park”, and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which prohibits any action, inside or outside the marine park, that affects the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage values.

Another recommendation is to rethink existing land-use plans. For instance, even the best practice in sugar cane farming is inconsistent with the nitrogen fertiliser run-off limits needed to meet water quality guidelines. One option is to shift to less intensive land uses such as grazing in the Wet Tropics region – a priority area for nitrate fertiliser management because of its link to crown of thorns starfish outbreaks. This option is being explored in a NESP project.

The ConversationThese changes would require significantly increased funding to support catchment and coastal management and to meet the draft plan’s targets. Government commitment to this level of management is essential to support the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef to climate change.

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Laurence McCook, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, Partner Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As a coastal defence, the Great Barrier Reef’s value to communities goes way beyond tourism



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Parts of the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs can form a natural barrier to coastal recession, thus protecting urban centres.
AAP

Mark Gibbs, Queensland University of Technology

Rising sea levels are widely recognised as a threat to coastal communities worldwide. In Australia, the Climate Council estimates that at least A$226 billion of assets and infrastructure will be exposed to inundation if sea levels rise by 1.1 metres. Another report recommended that global mean sea level rise of up to 2.7 metres this century should be considered in planning processes.

The Queensland state government has commissioned the QCoast2100 program. This program aims to help with the development of coastal climate adaptation plans for Queensland communities exposed to sea-level rise.

Although the largest population centres in Queensland are in the state’s southeast, several of the most populous regional centres in Australia are located along the Great Barrier Reef coastline between Gladstone and Cape York. These include Townsville, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay and Port Douglas.

A major task in developing coastal adaptation plans under the QCoast2100 program is to model inundation from a range of scenarios for sea-level rises and assess how assets will be inundated in the future. However, another threat is on the horizon.


Further reading: What’s the value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless


How urban centres are protected

Urban centres along the reef’s coastline, which forms the majority of the Queensland coast, are protected from major ocean storms by natural deposits of coastal sediments. These include dunes and associated vegetation such as coastal forests, wetlands and mangrove systems.

These natural features continue to exist largely because the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs dampen incoming ocean waves. Although exposed to the occasional cyclone – which can lead to short-term erosion at specific locations – much of the coastal zone inside the reef is slowly growing out into the sea.

This increasing buffer zone can form a natural barrier to coastal recession.

A recently released report estimated the total economic, social and icon asset value of the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion. By design, this report did not include many of the ecosystem services the reef provides. One of these is its role in reducing the energy of waves that impact the coastline behind the reef.

However, an earlier assessment of the total economic value of ecosystem services delivered by the reef estimated the present coastal protection benefit is worth at least A$10 billion.

Despite the inherent uncertainties in such assessments, it is clear the reef acts to reduce incoming wave energy and its impacts on cities and towns along much of the Queensland coastline. The total economic value of these benefits is in the billions of dollars.


Further reading: Coastal communities demand action on climate threats


What role is bleaching playing?

The Great Barrier Reef’s ability to keep protecting the Queensland shoreline, and communities living along it, depends upon the ability of individual reefs in the system to grow vertically to “keep up” with rising sea level.

The jury is still out on whether the outer reefs will be able to keep up with predicted rises. This is an active area of research.

However, it is clear reefs that are extensively affected by coral bleaching will struggle to maintain the essential processes required for productive reef-building. Many reefs are now experiencing net erosion.

Predictions of ocean warming suggest that bleaching events will become even more common in coming decades. Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are also making the oceans more acidic, which makes it more difficult for organisms such as corals to maintain their skeletons, which are made of calcium carbonate. This mineral dissolves more rapidly with increasing acidification, reducing the reef’s capacity to recover from storm damage and coral bleaching.

Therefore, as bleaching events and acidification continue, the outer reefs that protect the Queensland coast from ocean waves will increasingly struggle to perform this function.

The ConversationIn turn, over time the Queensland coast will potentially suffer from more coastal erosion, which may increase the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure. This effect, combined with rising sea levels leading to more coastal inundation events, multiples the risks to coastal settlements and infrastructure.

Mark Gibbs, Director, Knowledge to Innovation; Chair, Green Cross Australia, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t listed as ‘in danger’ – but it’s still in big trouble


James Watson, The University of Queensland and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

In a somewhat surprising decision, UNESCO ruled this week that the Great Barrier Reef – one of the Earth’s great natural wonders – should not be listed as “World Heritage in Danger”.

The World Heritage Committee praised the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, and the federal minister for the environment, Josh Frydenberg, has called the outcome “a big win for Australia and a big win for the Turnbull government”.

But that doesn’t mean the Reef is out of danger. Afforded World Heritage recognition in 1981, the Reef has been on the warning list for nearly three years. It’s not entirely evident why UNESCO decided not to list the Reef as “in danger” at this year’s meeting, given the many ongoing threats to its health.

However, the World Heritage Committee has made it clear they remain concerned about the future of this remarkable world heritage site.

The reef is still in deep trouble

UNESCO’s draft decision (the adopted version is not yet releasesd) cites significant and ongoing threats to the Reef, and emphasises that much more work is needed to get the health of the Reef back on track. Australia must provide a progress report on the Reef in two years’ time – and they want to see our efforts to protect the reef accelerate.

Right now, unprecedented coral bleaching in consecutive years has damaged two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This bleaching, or loss of algae, affects a 1,500km stretch of the reef. The latest damage is concentrated in the middle section, whereas last year’s bleaching hit mainly the north.

Pollution, overfishing and sedimentation are exacerbating the damage. Land clearing in Queensland has accelerated rapidly in the past few years, with about 1 million hectares of native vegetation being cleared in the past five years. That’s an area the size of the Brisbane Cricket Ground being cleared every three minutes.

About 40% of this vegetation clearing is in catchments that drain to the Great Barrier Reef. Land clearing contributes to gully and streambank erosion. This erosion means that soil (and whatever chemical residues are in it) washes into waterways and flows into reef lagoon, reducing water quality and affecting the health of corals and seagrass.

Landclearing also directly contributes to climate change, which is the single biggest threat to the Reef. The recent surge in land clearing in Queensland alone poses a threat to Australia’s ability to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target. Yet attempts by the Queensland Government to control excessive land clearing have failed – a concern highlighted by UNESCO in the draft decision.

Land clearing can lead to serious hillslope gully and sheet erosion, which causes sedimentation and reduced water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.
Willem van Aken/CSIRO

A time for action, not celebration

The Reef remains on UNESCO’s watch list. Just last month the World Heritage Committee released a report concluding that progress towards achieving water quality targets had been slow, and that it does not expect the immediate water quality targets to be met.

The draft decision still expressed UNESCO’s “serious concern” and “strongly encouraged” Australia to “accelerate efforts to ensure meeting the intermediate and long-term targets of the plan, which are essential to the overall resilience of the property, in particular regarding water quality”.

This means reducing run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farmlands. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.

The Great Barrier Reef is the most biodiverse of all the World Heritage sites, and of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance” according to the United Nations. A recent report by Deloitte put its value at A$56bn. It contributes an estimated A$6.4bn annually to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs.

Excessive landclearing in Queensland, which looks like being a core issue in the next state election, has been successfully curbed in the past, and it could be again.

But the reef cannot exist in the long term without international efforts to curb global warming. To address climate change and reduce emissions, we need to act both nationally and globally. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” to delay action on emissions.

The ConversationWe need adequate funding for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and a plan to reach zero net carbon emissions. Without that action, an “in danger” listing seems inevitable in 2020. But regardless of lists and labels, the evidence is clear. The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our eyes. Unless we do more, and fast, we risk losing it forever.

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless


Neil Perry, Western Sydney University

Deloitte Access Economics has valued the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion, with an economic contribution of A$6.4 billion per year. Yet this figure grossly underestimates the value of the reef, as it mainly focuses on tourism and the reef’s role as an Australian icon.

When you include aspects of the reef that the report excludes, such as the ecosystem services provided by coral reefs, you find that the reef is priceless.

Putting a price on the Great Barrier Reef buys into the notion that a cost-benefit analysis is the right way to make decisions on policies and projects that may affect the reef. For example, the environmental cost of the extension to the Abbot Point coal terminal can be compared to any economic benefits.

But as the reef is both priceless and irreplaceable, this is the wrong approach. Instead, the precautionary principle should be used to make decisions regarding the reef. Policies and projects that may damage the reef cannot go ahead.

How do you value the Great Barrier Reef?

The Deloitte report uses what’s known as a “contingent valuation” approach. This is a survey-based methodology, and is commonly used to measure the value of non-market environmental assets such as endangered species and national parks – as well as to calculate the impact of events such as oil spills.

In valuing the reef, surveys were used to elicit people’s willingness to pay for it, such as through a tax or levy. This was found to be A$67.60 per person per year. The report also uses the travel-cost method, which estimates willingness to pay for the Great Barrier Reef, based on the time and money that people spend to visit it. Again, this is commonly used in environmental economics to value national parks and the recreational value of local lakes.

Of course, all methods of valuing environmental assets have limitations. For example, it is difficult to make sure that respondents are stating realistic amounts in their willingness to pay. Respondents may act strategically if they think they really will be slugged with a Great Barrier Reef levy. They may conflate this environmental issue with all environmental issues.

But more importantly, the methodology in the report leaves out the most important non-market value that the reef provides, which are called ecosystem services. For example, coral reefs provide storm protection and erosion protection, and they are the nurseries for 25% of all marine animals which themselves have commercial and existence value.

The Deloitte report even cites (but does not reference) a 2014 study that values the ecosystem services provided by coral reefs at US$352,249 per hectare per year. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park covers 35 million hectares with 2,900 individual reefs of varying sizes. This means the ecosystem services it provides are worth trillions of dollars per year.

That is, it is essentially priceless.

The problem with putting a value on the Reef

Valuing the environment at all is contentious in economics. Valuation is performed so that all impacts from, say, a new development, can be expressed in a common metric – in this case dollars. This allows a cost-benefit analysis to be performed.

But putting a price on the Great Barrier Reef hides the fact that it is irreplaceable, and as such its value is not commensurate with the values of other assets. For instance, using Deloitte’s figure, The Australian newspaper compared the reef to the value of 12 Sydney Opera Houses. But while they are both icons, the Opera House can be rebuilt. The Great Barrier Reef cannot. Any loss is irreversible.

When environmental assets are irreplaceable and their loss irreversible, a more appropriate decision-making framework is the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle suggests that when there is uncertainty regarding the impacts of a new development on an environmental asset, decision makers should be cautious and minimise the maximum loss. For example, if it is even remotely possible that the extension to the Abbot Point coal terminal could lead to massive destruction of the reef, then precaution suggests that it shouldn’t go ahead.

Assigning a value to the reef might still be appropriate under the Precautionary Principle, to estimate the maximum loss. But it would require the pricing of all values and especially ecosystem services.

While the Precautionary Principle has been much maligned due to its perceived bias against development, it is a key element of the definition of Ecologically Sustainable Development in Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

For a priceless asset like the Great Barrier Reef, it is perhaps better to leave it as “priceless” and to act accordingly. After all, if the Precautionary Principle is ever going to be used when assessing Ecologically Sustainable Development, in contrast with cost-benefit analysis and valuations, it is surely for our main environmental icon.

The ConversationUltimately, the protection and prioritisation of the Great Barrier Reef is a political issue that requires political will, and not one that can be solved by pricing and economics.

Neil Perry, Research Lecturer, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.