Latest twist in the Adani saga reveals shortcomings in environmental approvals



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Adani faces court over allegations of concealing the amount of coal water released in Caley Valley Wetlands last year.
Ian Sutton/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

It was reported this week that the federal Environment Department declined to prosecute Adani for failing to disclose that its Australian chief executive, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, was formerly the director of operations at a Zambian copper mine when it discharged toxic pollutants into a major river. Under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, Adani is required to reveal the environmental history of its chief executive officers, and the federal report found Adani “may have been negligent”.

The revelations come as Adani faces down the Queensland government in the planning and environment court, over allegations the company concealed the full amount of coal-laden water discharged into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands last year.

These concerns highlight some fundamental problems with the existing regulatory framework surrounding the long term utility and effectiveness of environmental conditions in upholding environmental protections for land impacted by mining projects.

How effective are environmental conditions?

In 2016, the federal government granted Adani a 60-year mining licence, as well as unlimited access to groundwater for that period.

These licences were contingent on Adani creating an environmental management plan, monitoring the ongoing impact of its mining activities on the environment, and actively minimising environmental degradation.

But are these safeguards working?

In 2015 Advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia reported several non-compliance issues with the Abbott Point Storm Water Dam, such as pest monitoring, weed eradication, establishing a register of flammable liquids, and implementation of the water monitoring plan.

More recently, in late 2017, significant amounts of black coal water were discovered in the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands next to the mine. Adani stands accused of withholding the full extent of the spill, redacting a laboratory report showing higher levels of contamination.

Adani seems to have released coalwater into the wetland despite it being a condition of its environmental approval that it takes sufficient care to avoid contamination. Its A$12,000 penalty for non-compliance is relatively small compared with the company’s operating costs.

In this instance, the environmental conditions have provided no substantive protection or utility. They have simply functioned as a convenient fig leaf for both Adani and the government.

Who is responsible for monitoring Adani?

Adani’s proposed mine falls under both state and federal legislation. Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act requires the holder of a mining lease to plan and conduct activities on site to prevent any potential or actual release of a hazardous contaminant.

Furthermore, the relevant environmental authority must make sure that hazardous spills are cleaned up as quickly as possible.

But as a project of “national environmental significance” (given its potential impact on water resources, threatened species, ecological communities, migratory species, world heritage areas and national heritage places), the mine also comes under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Federal legislation obliges Adani to create an environmental management plan outlining exactly how it plans to promote environmental protection, and to manage and rehabilitate all areas affected by the mine.

Consequently, assessment of the environmental impact of the mine was conducted under a bilateral agreement between the both the federal and state regulatory frameworks. This means that the project has approval under both state and federal frameworks.

The aim is to reinforce environmental protection however in many instances there are significant problems with a lack of clear delineation with respect to management, monitoring and enforcement.

Does the system work?

Theoretically, these interlocking frameworks should work together to provide reinforced protection for the environment. The legislation operates on the core assumption that imposing environmental conditions minimises the environmental degradation from mining. However, the bilateral arrangement can often mean that the responsibility for monitoring matters of national environmental significance devolves to the state and the environmental conditions imposed at this level are ineffectively monitored and enforced and there is no public accountability.

Arguably, some environmental conditions hide deeper monitoring and enforcement problems and in so doing, actually exacerbate environmental impacts.

For example, it has been alleged that Adani altered a laboratory report while appealing its fine for the contamination of the Caley Valley Wetlands, with the original document reportedly showing much higher levels of contamination. The allowable level of coal water in the wetlands was 100 milligrams. The original report indicated that Adani may have released up to 834 milligrams. This was subsequently modified in a follow-up report and the matter is currently under investigation.

If established, this amounts to a disturbing breach with potentially devastating impacts. It highlights not only the failure of the environmental condition to incentivise behavioural change, but also a fundamental failure in oversight and management.

If environmental conditions are not supported by sufficient monitoring processes and sanctions, they have little effect.

Environmental conditions are imposed with the aim of managing the risk of environmental degradation by mining projects. However, their enforcement is too often mired by inadequate andopaque enforcement and oversight procedures, a lack of transparency and insufficient public accountability  

The ConversationWhile the Queensland Labor government considers whether to increase the regulatory pressures on Adani, by subjecting them to further EPBC Act triggers such as the water resource trigger or the implementation of a new climate change trigger, perhaps the more fundamental question is whether these changes will ultimately improve environmental protection in the absence of stronger transparency and accountability and more robust management and enforcement processes for environmental conditions attached to mining projects.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

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$60 million to save the Great Barrier Reef is a drop in the ocean, but we have to try


David Suggett, University of Technology Sydney

The Great Barrier Reef has never faced such a dire future. Amid increasingly doom-laden headlines, the federal government this week unveiled a recovery package aimed at securing the reef’s prospects. The question is whether this is indeed a rescue, or just a smokescreen of false hope.

The A$60 million package will be split between various projects:

  • A$36.6 million will be spent on reducing the runoff of land-based agricultural fertilisers and pesticides onto the reef

  • A$10.4 million will go towards an “all-out assault” on the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish

  • A$4.9 million will fund improved monitoring and early warning of issues such as mass bleaching

  • A$6 million will be spent on a new national Reef Restoration and Adaptation program.

But what return can we expect for this A$60 million investment, which is only 0.1% of the A$56 billion estimated economic value of the Great Barrier Reef?

Value for money

At face value, splitting the funding across several priority areas seems logical. Many local stressors, from pollution to overfishing, affect the Great Barrier Reef in different ways and in different places, so tackling them locally seems like a nice direct way to intervene.

But here’s the problem: these stressors interact and amplify each others’ effects. This means that spreading the money so thinly is a risky move, because successfully tackling any one problem rests on successfully tackling all the others.

Crown-of-thorns starfish is a great example. Even if we can remove or destroy them in sufficient numbers to make a difference, their populations will simply bounce back unless we also reduce the agricultural pollution that feeds their larvae. Alongside this, we need to ensure that their natural predators such as the giant triton mollusc also thrive.

Local impacts on the Great Barrier Reef are also amplified by global climate factors, such as the warming and increased ocean acidity caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Focusing purely on local issues risks diverting attention from this wider problem. The unprecedented back-to-back mass bleaching that catastrophically damaged the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 was a direct result of global climate change.

Preventing this from accelerating further requires global and collective
action on greenhouse gas emission reductions. As custodian of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as a major coal exporter and a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia has a responsibility to lead from the front to find alternatives to fossil fuels.

For this reason, the new funding package has unsurprisingly been criticised for not attempting to “cure” the ultimate problem that ails the Great Barrier Reef. Local interventions such as the ones being funded are often called out for being band-aid solutions. But the reality is that we need band-aids more than ever – although perhaps “tourniquets” would be more apt.

Cutting emissions and curbing climate change must remain our absolute priority.
However, even relatively optimistic emissions reduction scenarios will leave us
with warmer and acidic reefs for the coming decades. This means we will have to think well outside the box if we are to ensure that the Barrier Reef stays great. We cannot deny treatment while we attempt to find the cure.




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


The problem is that most current local reef interventions are considered too risky or too expensive, and are therefore dismissed without trying them. But unless we try alternatives, and are prepared to learn by trial and error, how can we find the solutions that work? What the government’s new package ultimately therefore provides is the incentive to innovate.

In this sense it follows parallel calls from the Queensland government to find new ways to boost coral abundance. As such, the federal funding may only be successful if we ensure that the proposed investment focuses on tackling the priority areas in new ways, rather than simply scaling up the current efforts.

As the stress builds on the Great Barrier Reef, one thing is certain: its future will depend on maximising its resilience. This necessarily calls for a range of efforts, focusing on biology, ecosystems, and changing human behaviour – not just defaulting to a single solution. Intensifying efforts to harness corals that are already adapted to extreme conditions will likely be crucial.

The ConversationAnd of course, all of this will count for nothing unless we also take parallel action to tackle the underlying problem: climate change.

David Suggett, Associate Professor in Marine Biology, University of Technology Sydney

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

How can we halt the feminisation of sea turtles in the northern Great Barrier Reef?


Ana Rita Patricio, University of Exeter

In the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the future for green sea turtles appears to be turning female.

A recent study has revealed that climate change is rapidly leading to the feminisation of green turtles in one of the world’s largest populations. Only about 1% of these juvenile turtles are hatching male.


Read more: What does climate change mean for sea turtles?


Among sea turtles, incubation temperatures above 29ºC produce more female offspring. When incubation temperatures approach 33ºC, 100% of the offspring are female. Cooler temperatures yield more males, up to 100% near a lower thermal limit of 23ºC. And if eggs incubate at temperatures outside the range of 23-33ºC the risk of embryo malformation and mortality becomes very high.

As current climate change models foresee increases in average global temperature of 2 to 3ºC by 2100, the future for these turtles is in danger. Worryingly, warmer temperatures will also lead to ocean expansion and sea-level rise, increasing the risk of flooding of nesting habitats.

How scientists are tackling the problem

Green sea turtles’ sensitivity to incubation temperatures is such that even a few degrees can dramatically change the sex ratio of hatchlings.

Sea turtles are particularly vulnerable because they have temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD, meaning that the sex of the offspring depends on the incubation temperature of the eggs. This is the same mechanism that determines the sex of several other reptile species, such as the crocodilians, many lizards and freshwater turtles.

Scientists and conservationists are well aware of how future temperatures may threaten these species. For the past two decades they have been investigating the incubation conditions and resulting sex ratios at several sea turtle nesting beaches worldwide.

This is mostly done using temperature recording devices (roughly the size of an egg). These are placed inside nest chambers among the clutch of eggs, or buried in the sand at the same depth as the eggs. When a clutch hatches (after 50 to 60 days) the device is recovered and the temperatures recorded are analysed.

Research has revealed that most nesting beaches studied to date have sand temperatures that favour female hatchling production. But this female bias is not immediately a bad thing, because male sea turtles can mate with several females (polygyny). So having more females actually enhances the reproductive potential of a population (i.e. more females equals more eggs).

But given that climate change will likely soon increase this female bias, important questions arise. How much of a female bias is OK? Will there be enough males? What is the minimum proportion of males to keep a sustainable population?

These questions are being investigated. But, in the meantime, alarming reports of populations with more than 99% of hatchlings being female stress the urgency of science-based management strategies. These strategies must be designed to promote (or maintain) cooler incubation temperatures at key nesting beaches to prevent population decline or even extinction.

The challenge of reversing feminisation

There are two general approaches to the problem:

  1. mitigate impacts at the most endangered nesting beaches
  2. identify and protect sites that naturally produce higher proportions of males.

Several studies emphasise that the natural shading native vegetation provides is essential to maintain cooler incubation temperatures. Thus, a key conservation action is to protect beach vegetation, or reforest nesting beaches.

Coastal vegetation also protects the nesting beach against wave erosion during storms, which will worsen under climate change. This strategy further requires coastal development to allow for buffer zones. Construction setback regulations should be enforced or implemented.

When natural shading is not an option, clutches of eggs can be moved either to more suitable beaches, or to hatcheries with artificial shading. Researchers have tested the use of synthetic shade cloth and found it is effective in reducing sand and nest temperatures.

Other potential strategies involve adding light-coloured sand on top of nests. This can help by absorbing less solar radiation (heat) compared to darker sand. Beach sprinklers have also been tested to simulate the cooling effect of rainfall.

The effectiveness of these actions has yet to be fully tested, but there is concern about some potential negative side effects. For example, excess water from sprinklers may cause fungal infections on eggs.

Finally, as much as mitigation measures are important, these are always short-term solutions. In the long run, prevention is always the best strategy, i.e. protecting the nesting beaches that currently produce more males from deforestation, development and habitat degradation.

Our recent research on the largest green turtle population in Africa reports unusually high male hatchling production. We found almost balanced hatchling sex ratios (1 female to 1.2 males). We attributed this mostly to the cooling effect of the native forest.

This, and similar nesting beaches, should be designated as priority conservation sites, as they will be key to ensuring the future of sea turtles under projected global warming scenarios.

Sea turtles face an uncertain future

Sea turtles are resilient creatures. They have been around for over 200 million years, surviving the mass extinction that included the dinosaurs, and enduring dramatic climatic changes in the past.

There is potential for these creatures to adapt, as they did before. This could be through, for example, shifting the timing of nesting to cooler periods, changing their distribution to more suitable habitats, or evolution of critical incubation temperatures that produce males.


Read more: Turtle hatchlings lend each other a flipper to save energy


But the climate today is changing at an unprecedented rate. Along with the feminisation of these turtles in the northern Great Barrier Reef, sea turtles globally face many threats from humans. These include problems associated with by-catch, poaching, habitat degradation and coastal development, plus a history of intense human exploitation.

The ConversationIn 2018, the prevalence of these species depends now more than ever on the effectiveness of conservation measures.

Ana Rita Patricio, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Exeter

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

Indigenous ranger programs are working in Queensland – they should be expanded


Emilie Ens, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, James Cook University

Indigenous ranger programs are a rare good news story of a government initiative that delivers outstanding social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes. Now, new data have revealed that many Queenslanders would like to see these programs expanded.

Recent polling shows that 80% of Queenslanders, including 70% of One Nation voters, support Indigenous land and sea management, while 88% of Queenslanders support a proposal to create 200 new ranger jobs over the next ten years.


Read more: Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories


The 2017 Queensland budget pledged 25 new Indigenous ranger jobs over the next three years. That would bring the total number of state government-supported ranger positions to 101. As our research below shows, there should be much more support to bring Queensland Indigenous ranger numbers into line with other big states.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see these programs as a cornerstone of cultural maintenance and management of their ancestral estates. There is a strong case for the program to be dramatically expanded in Queensland and beyond.

Why do Queenslanders support more Indigenous ranger jobs?

Indigenous Natural Cultural Resource Management (NCRM) organisations and ranger groups perform many tasks. These include management of heritage sites, surveillance, monitoring and management of wildlife, fire management, feral animal control, weed control and recording of Indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge.

Local communities, and even the United Nations, have widely acknowledged the benefits of Indigenous ranger programs.

Gerry Turpin, a Mbarbaram man from Northern Queensland and ethnobotanist at the Queensland Herbarium, explains:

For us, it’s about meaningful employment for our young people including training and opportunities to develop a career. The program not only benefits the individual but is significant for their families and the wider community. Benefits are not only employment but also physical, mental and spiritual health, and pride in our culture and country.

We need rangers on country as our country has been under assault since colonial times. Impacts include mining, cattle and weeds, which then impacts on our flora and fauna. Our strong and diverse presence on country presents an opportunity to work with Indigenous biocultural knowledge systems and Western science.

Participants for the ‘Skills on Country – Cultural Mapping Workshops for Young Traditional Owners’ project on Mbarbaram Country. Funded by the Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program.
Gerry Turpin, Author provided

A 2015 Australian government review quantified the benefits of the national Indigenous ranger program.

Using the Social Return on Investment methodology, the review found that an investment of A$35.2 million from government and a range of third parties between 2009 and 2015 generated A$96.5 million in social, economic, cultural and environmental returns. That’s nearly a threefold return on investment.

The review also found that, unlike many Indigenous community development programs of the past, the ranger program is:

…effectively overcoming barriers to addressing Indigenous disadvantage and engaging Indigenous Australians on country in meaningful employment to achieve large-scale conservation outcomes, thus aligning the interests of Indigenous Australians and the broader community.

Planning for the Future on Mbabaram Country.

The Indigenous ranger community-based initiative has grown to produce many well-established organisations with expertise in knowledge integration, planning, geographical information systems (GIS), research, training and management.

History of the Indigenous ranger program

In 2017, both the Australian government’s Indigenous ranger program, Working on Country, and Queensland’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program celebrated their 10th anniversaries.

Indigenous rangers are also funded through other avenues such as non-government organisations, national parks and other supporting institutions.

The Working on Country program supports 109 ranger groups and 777 full-time equivalent ranger positions across Australia. The map below shows the breakdown of state and territory funded positions in 2014-15. It highlights that the Queensland Indigenous ranger workforce is substantially smaller than those of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Queensland rangers make up only about 8% of the Working on Country program. Queensland Indigenous Protected Areas make up less then 6% of Australia’s government-funded Indigenous conservation estate. However, Queensland is Australia’s second-largest state or territory, covering 22.5% of the country.

According to the 2016 census, 29% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in Queensland, most of them in the central, south and southeast of the state.



PM&C/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The disproportionately low allocation of Indigenous ranger positions and Indigenous Protected Areas in Queensland relative to its size and Indigenous population warrants attention at the national level.

Greater support needed in Queensland

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland are not receiving support for Indigenous rangers to match the size of the state and Indigenous population. Most Queensland Indigenous ranger jobs are offered in the remote north of the state and southeast.

Our research reveals large gaps in documented Indigenous biocultural knowledge in southwest and central Queensland, where many Aboriginal people live. This points to the need for enhanced biocultural resource maintenance and possibly revival, which expansion of the ranger program in this region could achieve.


Read more: Remote Indigenous communities are vital for our fragile ecosystems


The Queensland government has called for donors to support the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program. Considering the outstanding environmental, economic and social benefits of Indigenous rangers and their overwhelming support by Queenslanders, more could be done in-house.

The Queensland government pledge to add 25 ranger positions, for a total of 101, should be increased fivefold. This would reflect the geographic, cultural and environmental challenges the state faces.

The ConversationWhile the Indigenous ranger support by the state and federal governments to date is to be commended, the Queensland community clearly has an appetite to expand and enhance the Queensland program.

Emilie Ens, Senior lecturer, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

It’s official: 2016’s Great Barrier Reef bleaching was unlike anything that went before


Sophie Lewis, Australian National University and Jennie Mallela, Australian National University

It is no longer news that the Great Barrier Reef has suffered extreme bleaching.

In early 2016, we heard that the reef had suffered the worst bleaching ever recorded. Surveys published in June that year estimated that 93% of coral on the vast northern section of the reef was bleached, and 22% had already been killed.

Further reports from this year show that bleaching again occurred. The back-to-back bleaching hit more than two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef and may threaten its UNESCO World Heritage listing.

After recent years of damage, what does the future hold for our priceless reef?

Our new research, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s special report on climate extremes, shows the news isn’t good for the Great Barrier Reef’s future.


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


Coral reefs are complex ecosystems that are affected by many factors. Changes in sea surface temperatures, rainfall, cloudiness, agricultural runoff, or water quality can affect a reef’s health and resilience to stress.

Early analysis of the 2016 bleaching suggested that the Great Barrier Reef was suffering from thermal stress brought on by human-caused climate change.

Our study took a new and comprehensive approach to examine these multiple climatic and environmental influences.

We set out to answer the crucial question: could anything else have bleached the Great Barrier Reef, besides human-induced climate change?

Clear fingerprint

The results were clear. Using a suite of climate models, we found that the significant warming of the Coral Sea region was likely caused by greenhouse gases from human activities. This warming was the primary cause of the extreme 2016 bleaching episode.

But what about those other complex factors? The 2016 event coincided with an El Niño episode that was among the most severe ever observed. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation system, with its positive El Niño and negative La Niña phases, has been linked to bleaching of various coral reefs in the past.

Our study showed that although the 2016 El Niño probably also contributed to the bleaching, this was a secondary contributor to the corals’ thermal stress. The major factor was the increase in temperatures because of climate change.

We next analysed other environmental data. Previous research has found that corals at sites with better water quality (that is, lower concentrations of pollution particles) are more resilient and less prone to bleaching.

Pollution data used in our study show that water quality in 2016 may have been better than in previous bleaching years. This means that the Great Barrier Reef should have been at lower risk of bleaching compared to long-term average conditions, all else being equal. Instead, record bleaching hit the reef as a result of the warming temperature trend.

Previous events

The final part of our investigation involved comparing the conditions behind the record 2016 bleaching with those seen in previous mass bleaching episodes on the Great Barrier Reef, in 1997-98 and 2010-11.

When we analysed these previous events on the Reef, we found very different factors at play.

In 1997-98 the bleaching coincided with a very strong El Niño event. Although an El Niño event also occurred in 2016, the two were very different in terms of the distribution of unusually warm waters, particularly in the eastern equatorial Pacific. In 1997-98, the primary cause of the bleaching – which was less severe than in 2016 – was El Niño.

In 2010-11, the health of the Great Barrier Reef was impaired by runoff. That summer brought record high rainfall to eastern Australia, causing widespread flooding across Queensland. As a result of the discharge of freshwater onto the reef reducing the salinity, bleaching occurred.


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


There have been many reports in recent years warning of trouble for the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, our study is yet another warning about the reef’s future – perhaps the most comprehensive warning yet. It tells us that the 2016 bleaching differed from previous mass bleaching events because it was driven primarily by human-induced climate warming.

This puts the Great Barrier Reef in grave danger of future bleaching from further greenhouse warming. The local environmental factors that have previously helped to protect our reefs, such as good water quality, will become less and less able to safeguard corals as the oceans warm.

The ConversationNow we need to take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit further warming. Without these steps, there is simply no future for our Great Barrier Reef.

Sophie Lewis, Research fellow, Australian National University and Jennie Mallela, Research Fellow in Coral Reef Monitoring and Reef Health Appraisal, Australian National University

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

How we found 112 ‘recovery reefs’ dotted through the Great Barrier Reef


File 20171129 28869 lod9mh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Some reefs are strong sources of coral larvae.
Peter Mumby, Author provided

Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is better able to heal itself than we previously imagined, according to new research that identifies 112 individual reefs that can help drive the entire system towards recovery.

The back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 that killed many corals on the Great Barrier Reef have led many researchers to ask whether and how it can recover. Conventionally, we tend to focus on what controls recovery on individual reefs – for example, whether they are fouled by seaweed or sediments.

But in our study, published in PLoS Biology, my colleagues and I stepped back to view the entire Great Barrier Reef as a whole entity and ask how it can potentially repair itself.


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


We began by asking whether some reefs are exceptionally important for kick-starting widespread recovery after damage. To do this we set three criteria.

First, we looked for reefs that are major sources of coral larvae – the ultimate source of recovery. Every year corals engage in one of nature’s greatest spectacles, their mass reproduction during a November full moon. Fertilised eggs (larvae) travel on ocean currents for days or weeks in search of a new home.

With our partners at the CSIRO we’ve been able to model where these larvae go, and therefore the “connectivity” of the reef. By using this modelling (the Great Barrier Reef is far too large to observe this directly), we looked for reefs that strongly and consistently supply larvae to many other reefs.

Healthy reefs supply far more larvae than damaged ones, so our second criterion was that reefs should have a relatively low risk of being impacted by coral bleaching. Using satellite records of sea temperature dating back to 1985, we identified reefs that have not yet experienced the kind of temperature that causes mass coral loss. That doesn’t mean these reefs will never experience bleaching, but it does mean they have a relatively good chance of surviving at least for the foreseeable future.

Our final criterion was that reefs should supply coral larvae but not pests. Here we focused on the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, whose larvae also travel on ocean currents. We know that outbreaks of these starfish tend to begin north of Cairns, and from that we can predict which reefs are most likely to become infested over time.

Fortunately, many good sources of coral larvae are relatively safe from crown-of-thorns starfish, particularly those reefs that are far offshore and bathed in oceanic water from the Coral Sea rather than the currents that flow past Cairns. Indeed, the access to deep – and often cooling – ocean water helps moderate temperature extremes in these outer reefs, which also reduces the risk of bleaching in some areas.

Using these three criteria, we pinpointed 112 reefs that are likely to be important in driving reef recovery for the wider system. They represent only 3% of the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, but are so widely connected that their larvae can reach 47% of all the reefs within a single summer spawning season.

Unfortunately, their distribution across the reef is patchy. Relatively few are in the north (see map) so this area is relatively vulnerable.

Black dots show reefs identified as strong sources of coral larvae; grey dots show other reefs.
Hock et al., PLoS Biol.

Our study shows that reefs vary hugely, both in their exposure to damage and in their ability to contribute to the recovery of corals elsewhere. Where these patterns are pretty consistent over time – as is the case for the reefs we identified – it makes sense to factor this information into management planning.

It would be sensible to improve surveillance of these particular reefs, to check that crown-of-thorns starfish do not reach them, and to eradicate the starfish if they do.

To be clear, these are not the only reefs that should be managed. The Great Barrier Reef already has more than 30% of its area under protection from fishing, and many of its other individual reefs are important for tourism, fisheries and cultural benefits.

But the point here is that some reefs are far more important for ecosystem recovery than others. Factoring these patterns into tactical management – such as how best to respond in the aftermath of a cyclone strike – is the next step. It’s a need that has been articulated repeatedly by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.


Read more: Coal and climate change: a death sentence for the Great Barrier Reef


Taking the long-term view, the greatest threats to the reef are rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification caused by elevated carbon dioxide levels. This is clearly a challenge for humanity and one that requires consistent policies across governments.

But local protection is vital in order to maintain the reef in the best state possible given the global environment. Actions include improvements to the quality of the water emerging from rivers, controlling crown-of-thorns starfish, and maintaining healthy fish populations.

The ConversationThis is an expensive process and resources need to be deployed as effectively as possible. Our results help target management effectively by revealing the underlying mechanisms of repair on the reef. If management can help protect and facilitate corals’ natural processes of recovery, this might go a long way towards sustaining the Great Barrier Reef in an already challenging environment.

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

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

Australia is a global top-ten deforester – and Queensland is leading the way


Noel D Preece, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

When you think of devastating deforestation and extinction you usually think of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo. But eastern Australia ranks alongside these in the top 10 of the world’s major deforestation fronts – the only one in a developed nation. Most of the clearing is happening in Queensland, and it is accelerating.

Only last year a group of leading ecologists voiced their alarm at new data which showed the clearing of 296,000 hectares of forest in 2013-14. This was three times higher than in 2008-09, kicking Australia up the list as one of the world’s forest-clearing pariahs. At the 2016 Society for Conservation Biology Conference, a Scientists’ Declaration was signed by hundreds of scientists, expressing concern at these clearing rates.


Read more: Queensland land clearing is undermining Australia’s environmental progress


But the latest snapshot, Queensland’s Department of Science report on land cover change published last month, showed a staggering 395,000ha of clearing for 2015-16: an increase of one third on 2014-15. As far as we can tell this rate of increased clearing is unmatched anywhere else on the globe.

showed a staggering 395,000 of clearing for 2015-16: which is an increase of one third on 2014-15, or 133% over the period

Strong vegetation management laws enacted in Queensland – the Vegetation Management Act 1999 – achieved dramatic reductions in forest and woodland loss. But the subsequent Liberal National state government, elected in 2012, overturned these protections.

The current government, elected in 2015, has tried and failed to reinstate the protections. In response, “panic clearing” caused clearing rates to shoot up, in anticipation that the state election will deliver a government that will reintroduce the much-needed protection of forests.

The Queensland Parliament is now in caretaker mode ahead of the November 25 election. The Queensland Labor Party has pledged to reinstate laws to prevent wholesale clearing, while the LNP opposition has vowed to retain current clearing rates.

Forest cleared by bulldozers towing massive chains.
Noel Preece

Australian community and wildlife lose

Whichever way you look at it, there is not a lot of sense in continued clearing. Australia already has some of the highest extinction rates on the planet for plants and animals. With 80% of Queensland’s threatened species living in forest and woodland, more clearing will certainly increase that rate.

Clearing also kills tens of millions of animals across Australia each year, a major animal welfare concern that rarely receives attention. This jeopardises both wildlife and the A$140 million invested in threatened species recovery.


Read more: Land clearing isn’t just about trees – it’s an animal welfare issue too


This rate of clearing neutralises our major environment programs. Just one year of clearing has removed more trees than the bulk of 20 million trees painstakingly planted, at a cost of A$50 million. Australia’s major environment programs simply can’t keep up, and since 2013 are restoring only one-tenth of the extent of land bulldozed just last year.

Restoration costs to improve the quality of waters running onto the Great Barrier Reef are estimated at around A$5 billion to A$10 billion over 10 years. Nearly 40% of the land cleared in Queensland is in reef catchments, which will reverse any water quality gains as sediment pours onto the reef.

Climate efforts nullified

Since 2014, the federal government has invested A$2.55 billion on reducing emissions in the Carbon Farming Initiative through the Emissions Reduction Fund. Currently 189 million tonnes of abatement has been delivered by the Emissions Reduction Fund. This – the central plank of the Australian government’s climate response – will be all but nullified by the end of 2018 with the current clearing rates, and will certainly be wiped out by 2020, when Australia is expected to meet its climate target of 5% below 2000 emissions.

Ironically, this target will be achieved with the help of carried-over results from the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which Australia was only able to meet because land clearing had decreased between 1990 and 1997.

Why is this happening?

Most of the clearing in Queensland since 1999 has been for pasture. Most good cropping land was cleared decades ago. Removing trees in more marginal lands can increase the carrying capacity for a short time with an immediate, and usually short-lived, financial reward. These rewards come at the expense of long-term sustainability, which future landholders and government will bear.

Large areas of the cleared lands have been subject to substantial erosion and nutrient loss from the newly cleared lands, and land degradation over time, and some areas have suffered massive woody weed incursions.

This is playing out today across the north where pastoralism is a marginal activity at best, with declining terms of trade of about 2% per year, with no net productivity growth, high average debts and low returns, and many enterprises facing insolvency. Clearing vegetation won’t change that.

A recent preliminary valuation of ecosystem services, on the other hand, estimated that uncleared lands are worth A$3,300-$6,100 per hectare per year to the Australian community, compared with productivity of grazing lands of A$18 per hectare.

With a clear divide between the policies Labor and the LNP are taking to the election, now is a good time to give land clearing’s social, economic and environmental impact the scrutiny it deserves.


The ConversationThis article was updated on November 21 to reflect that land clearing increased in by a third in 2015-16 over 2014-15 levels. Previously the article stated an increase of 133%.

Noel D Preece, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, Principal Research Adjunct James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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