The link below is to an article reporting on the approval of Australia’s largest wind farm in Queensland.
The Queensland government passed legislation last month to prevent the clearing of high-value regrowth vegetation on freehold and Indigenous land. The move has been deeply unpopular with many landholders. They have argued that they are footing the bill for the commmunity’s environmental aspirations – without compensation.
The government’s intention was to reinstate a “responsible vegetation management framework”, broadly in line with legislation first passed in 2004, but which the Newman government repealed in 2013.
But time has moved on since 2004. Instead of relying on a heavy-handed regulatory approach, a mix of carrots and sticks might have generated economic value for landholders, and reduced land clearing into the bargain.
Why landholders are fuming
Broadly speaking, landholders are worried the government hasn’t listened to their concerns and won’t pay for the land that is now effectively under state regulatory control. The parliamentary committee set up to report on the bill received more than 13,000 submissions (including 777 non-pro-forma submissions) – the largest number received by any committee of the Queensland parliament.
The government itself has admitted stakeholders were not consulted in the preparation of the bill, although the department report cites a “substantial history” of consultation on many of its measures. Nevertheless, the Queensland Law Society felt that further consultation would have been appropriate given “the sensitive nature of this legislation”.
Many submissions raised concerns about information shortfalls, regulatory duplication and excessive red tape. The department’s fallback position was simply to argue that “the proposed amendments are consistent with the government’s 2017 election commitment”.
Ironically, it is not only landholders who have lost out financially. The Queensland government is now effectively in control of an additional 1.76 million hectares of land, which it intends to leave undeveloped. But, in today’s world, the carbon stored in this land has a market price as well as an environmental value, if it’s properly managed.
With a little more preparation and creative thinking, the government might have been able to spare our vegetation, create a huge pool of lucrative carbon offsets ready to market to the world, and provide compensation to affected landholders.
For instance, instead of an outright prohibition on land clearing, the government could have put in place a three-year moratorium on land clearing. Landholders could then be given a chance to opt out of the moratorium by transferring their land to a permanent conservation covenant or similar arrangement.
Although some careful drafting would be required to ensure the offsets integrity standards and other regulatory requirements are met, landholders who opted out of the temporary moratorium could become eligible to earn carbon offsets, or any other available financial incentives.
On the other hand, landholders who do not respond to this financial “carrot” would run the risk of being hit with the (uncompensated) “stick” of a more prescriptive approach (temporary or not) at the end of the moratorium period.
The government could help this transition along by helping landholders sign up for one or more of the various existing schemes for conservation covenants, carbon offsets and biodiversity offsets. One of the main factors preventing greater participation in these schemes is prohibitively high transaction costs, especially in the early stages.
I realise there is a degree of wishful thinking about this proposal. Several hurdles, particularly political ones, would need to be overcome. But if we want serious, fair and enduring land use reform, I think these options merit a more meaningful investigation.
At the moment, a heavy-handed sweep of a pen by politicians in Brisbane has locked both landholders and government out of the market for ecosystem services. Given that the government now essentially owns a huge store of carbon assets, it’s a missed opportunity.
With a little more creative thinking, Queensland might have provided compensation to landholders at no cost to itself. Instead, it has used a regulatory hammer to impose rules that – judging by past performance – have no guarantee of surviving past the next election.
Just like birds and mammals carrying seeds through a rainforest, green sea turtles and dugong spread the seeds of seagrass plants as they feed. Our team at James Cook University’s TropWATER Centre has uncovered a unique relationship in the seagrass meadows of the Great Barrier Reef.
We followed feeding sea turtle and dugong, collecting samples of their floating faecal matter. Samantha then had the unenviable job of sifting through hundreds of smelly samples to find any seagrass seeds. These seeds range in size from a few centimetres to a few millimetres, and therefore can require the assistance of a microscope to be found. Once any seeds were found, they were stained with a chemical dye (Tetrazolium) to see if they were still viable (capable of growing).
Why is this important for turtles and dugong?
Green sea turtles and dugong are iconic animals on the reef, and seagrass is their food. Dugong can eat as much as 35 kilograms of wet seagrass a day, while sea turtles can eat up to 2.5% of their body weight per day. Without productive seagrass meadows, they would not survive.
This relationship was highlighted in 2010-11 when heavy flooding and the impact of tropical cyclone Yasi led to drastic seagrass declines in north Queensland. In the year following this seagrass decline there was a spike in the number of starving and stranded sea turtles and dugong along the entire Queensland coast.
The seagrass team at James Cook University has been mapping, monitoring and researching the health of the Great Barrier Reef seagrasses for more than 30 years. While coral reefs are more attractive for tourists, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area actually contains a greater area of seagrass than coral, encompassing around 20% of the world’s seagrass species. Seagrass ecosystems also maintain vibrant marine life, with many fish, crustaceans, sea stars, sea cucumbers, urchins and many more marine animals calling these meadows their home.
These underwater flowering plants are a vital component of the reef ecosystem. Seagrasses stabilise the sediment, sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and filter the water before it reaches the coral reefs. Further, the seagrass meadows in the Great Barrier Reef support one of the largest populations of sea turtles and dugong in the world.
Seagrass meadows are more connected than we thought
Samantha’s research was worth the effort. There were seeds of at least three seagrass species in the poo of both sea turtles and dugong. And lots of them – as many as two seeds per gram of poo. About one in ten were viable, meaning they could grow into new plants.
Based on estimates of the number of animals in the coastal waters, the time it takes for food to pass through their gut, and movement data collected from animals fitted with satellite tags, there are potentially as many as 500,000 viable seeds on the move each day in the Great Barrier Reef. These seeds can be transported distances of up to 650km in total.
This means turtles and dugong are connecting distant seagrass meadows by transporting seeds. Those seeds improve the genetic diversity of the meadows and may help meadows recover when they are damaged or lost after cyclones. These animals help to protect and nurture their own food supply, and in doing so make the reef ecosystem around them more resilient.
Understanding recovery after climate events
This research shows that these ecosystems have pathways for recovery. Provided we take care with the environment, seagrasses may yet recover without direct human intervention.
This work emphasises how much we still have to learn about how the reef systems interconnect and work together – and how much we need to protect every part of our marvellous and amazing reef environment.
Samantha J Tol, PhD Candidate, James Cook University; Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Paul York, Senior Research Scientist in Marine Biology, James Cook University, and Rob Coles, Team leader, Seagrass Habitats, TropWATER, James Cook University
The federal government’s announcement of more than A$500 million in funding for the Great Barrier Reef is good news. It appears to show a significant commitment to the reef’s preservation – something that has been lacking in recent years.
The new A$444 million package, which comes in the wake of the A$60 million previously announced in January, includes:
A$201 million to improve water quality by cutting fertiliser use and adopting new technologies and practices
A$100 million for research on coral resilience and adaptation
A$58 million to continue fighting crown-of-thorns starfish
A$45 million for community engagement, particularly among Traditional Owners
A$40 million to enhance monitoring and management on the GBR.
A spokesperson for federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said the funding would be available immediately to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and that there was no predetermined time frame for the spending.
But one concern with the package is that it seems to give greatest weight to the strategies that are already being tried – and which have so far fallen a long way short of success.
The government has not yet announced the timelines for rollout of the program. But if we assume that the A$201 million is funding for the next two years, this matches the current rate of water quality management funding – A$100 million a year, which has been in place since 2008.
Yet it is already clear that this existing funding is not reducing pollution loads on the GBR by the required extent. The federal and Queensland governments’ own annual report cards for 2015 and 2016 reveal limited success in improving water quality. It is also known from joint Australian and Queensland government analyses that the required funding to meet water quality targets is of the order of A$1 billion per year over the next 10 years.
In the region’s main industries, such as sugarcane cultivation and beef grazing, most land is still managed using methods that are well below best practice for water quality, such as fertiliser rates of application in sugarcane cultivation. According to the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement on the GBR’s water quality, very limited progress has been made so far.
The respective load reduction targets set for 2018 and 2025 are highly unlikely to be met at current funding levels. For example, shown below are the current projections for levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN).
This likely failure to meet any of the targets was noted by UNESCO in 2015 and again in 2017 as a major concern, amid deliberations on whether to put the GBR on the World Heritage in Danger list. The UNESCO report criticised Australia’s lack of progress towards achieving its 2050 water quality targets and failure to pass land clearing legislation.
As the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement also pointed out, improvements to land management oversight are “urgently needed”. Continued government spending on the same programs, at the same levels, and with no federal legislation to mandate improvements, is unlikely to bring water pollution to acceptable levels or offer significant protection to the GBR.
In contrast to the federal government, the Queensland government is taking what are likely to be more effective measures to manage water quality. These include regulations such as the revised Vegetation Management Act, which is likely to be passed by the parliament in the next few weeks; and the updated Reef Protection Act, currently out for review. Queensland is also directing funds towards pollution hotspots under the Major Integrated Projects framework.
The government’s new package has pledged A$58 million for further culling of this coral-eating animal. Yet the current culling program has faced serious criticism over its effectiveness.
Udo Engelhardt, director of consultancy Reefcare International, and a pioneer in the control of crown-of-thorns starfish, has claimed that his analysis of the culling carried out in 2013-15 in reef areas off Cairns and to the south of Cairns, reveals a “widespread and consistent failure” to protect coral cover.
Nor does there seem to have been a major independent review of the program since these findings came to light. Without one, it seems a shaky bet to assume that we will expect any more success simply by continuing to fund it.
Similar question marks hover over the A$100 million being provided to harness the best science to help restore and protect the reef, and to study the most resilient corals. Like other aspects of the package, the government has not yet promised a timeline on which to roll out the funds.
While reef restoration may be significant for the long-term (decades to centuries) status of the GBR, it is hard to believe that these studies will help within the coming few decades. And even long-term success will hinge either on our ability to stabilise the climate, or on science’s ability to keep pace with the rate of future change.
In the meantime, reef restoration seems at best to be a band-aid that could preserve select tourism sites, but is inconceivable on the scale of the entire GBR.
Herein lies the most significant criticism of the new funding package. It avoids any mention of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, or of working closely with the international community to help deliver significant global reductions. Yet climate change is routinely described as the biggest threat to the reef.
The new announcement dodges that issue, while providing a moderate amount of funding for the continuation of largely unsuccessful programs. Given that the new funding is to be managed by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – which is a charity rather than a statutory management body – we can only hope that the foundation finds new and innovative ways to improve greatly on the current efforts.
In 2016 the Great Barrier Reef suffered unprecedented mass coral bleaching – part of a global bleaching event that dwarfed its predecessors in 1998 and 2002. This was followed by another mass bleaching the following year.
This was the first case of back-to-back mass bleaching events on the reef. The result was a 30% loss of corals in 2016, a further 20% loss in 2017, and big changes in community structure. New research published in Nature today now reveals the damage that these losses caused to the wider ecosystem functioning of the Great Barrier Reef.
Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a rapid, catastrophic die-off, changing the three-dimensional character of many individual reefs. In areas subject to the most sustained high temperatures, some corals died without even bleaching – the first time that such rapid coral death has been documented on such a wide scale.
The research team, led by Terry Hughes of James Cook University, carried out extensive surveys during the two bleaching events, at a range of scales.
First, aerial surveys from planes generated thousands of videos of the reef. The data from these videos were then verified by teams of divers in the water using traditional survey methods.
Finally, teams of divers took samples of corals and investigated their physiology in the laboratory. This included counting the density of the microalgae that live within the coral cells and provide most of the energy for the corals.
The latest paper follows on from earlier research which documented the 81% of reefs that bleached in the northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef, 33% in the central section, and 1% in the southern sector, and compared this event with previous bleaching events. Another previous paper documented the reduction in time between bleaching events since the 1980s, down to the current interval of one every six years.
Although reef scientists have been predicting the increased frequency and severity of bleaching events for two decades, this paper has some surprising and alarming results. Bleaching events occur when the temperature rises above the average summer maximum for a sufficient period. We measure this accumulated heat stress in “degree heating weeks” (DHW) – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum, multiplied by the number of weeks. Generally, the higher the DHW, the higher the expected coral death.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has suggested that bleaching generally starts at 4 DHW, and death at around 8 DHW. Modelling of the expected results of future bleaching events has been based on these estimates, often with the expectation the thresholds will become higher over time as corals adapt to changing conditions.
In the 2016 event, however, bleaching began at 2 DHW and corals began dying at 3 DHW. Then, as the sustained high temperatures continued, coral death accelerated rapidly, reaching more than 50% mortality at only 4-5 DHW.
Many corals also died very rapidly, without appearing to bleach beforehand. This suggests that these corals essentially shut down due to the heat. This is the first record of such rapid death occurring at this scale.
This study shows clearly that the structure of coral communities in the northern sector of the reef has changed dramatically, with a predominant loss of branching corals. The post-bleaching reef has a higher proportion of massive growth forms which, with no gaps between branches, provide fewer places for fish and invertebrates to hide. This loss of hiding places is one of the reasons for the reduction of fish populations following severe bleaching events.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which produces the Red List of threatened species, recently extended this concept to ecosystems that are threatened with collapse. This is difficult to implement, but this new research provides the initial and post-event data, leaves us with no doubt about the driver of the change, and suggests threshold levels of DHWs. These cover the requirements for such a listing.
Predictions of recovery times following these bleaching events are difficult as many corals that survived are weakened, so mortality continues. Replacement of lost corals through recruitment relies on healthy coral larvae arriving and finding suitable settlement substrate. Corals that have experienced these warm events are often slow to recover enough to reproduce normally so larvae may need to travel from distant healthy reefs.
Although this paper brings us devastating news of coral death at relatively low levels of heat stress, it is important to recognise that we still have plenty of good coral cover remaining on the Great Barrier Reef, particularly in the southern and central sectors. We can save this reef, but the time to act is now.
This is not just for the sake of our precious Great Barrier Reef, but for the people who live close to reefs around the world that are at risk from climate change. Millions rely on reefs for protection of their nations from oceanic swells, for food and for other ecosystem services.
This research leaves no doubt that we must reduce global emissions dramatically and swiftly if we are save these vital ecosystems. We also need to invest in looking after reefs at a local level to increase their chances of surviving the challenges of climate change. This means adequately funding improvements to water quality and protecting as many areas as possible.
Queensland’s Labor government this month tabled a bill to tighten the regulation of land clearing. Queensland is by far the worst offender in this area, following a litany of reversals of vegetation protection.
After a period of tightened laws between 2004 and 2013, the Newman government set about unwinding key reforms during its 2012-15 term.
Following these changes, land-clearing rates quadrupled to almost 400,000 hectares per year, to the dismay of conservationists, with rising concern about the impacts on wild animal welfare and wider ecological impacts.
The state’s Labor government, which retained power at the November 2017 election, made an election promise to tighten vegetation management laws. However, the bill is likely to be fiercely debated after the parliamentary committee tables its report next month.
Although the bill promises a steep reduction in land clearing, albeit without any firm target, there is likely to be a significant gap between what the government has promised and what its legislation may deliver in reality.
To explain why, let’s look in more detail at what the proposed legislation does, as well as what it doesn’t do.
The 2013 amendments legalised the clearing of mature forest for large-scale crop-growing developments. The bill will once again ban it, fulfilling Labor’s election promise, but it remains a major point of friction with agriculturalists.
This will not stop the roughly 114,000 hectares that have already been approved from being cleared. It would, however, stop any more approvals.
About 10% of clearing of mature forest is due to high value agriculture approvals.
Up to 67% of clearing of regulated vegetation is occurring under self-assessment provisions. No permit is required for this, provided that landowners follow the code and give notice of their plans.
Of this self-assessed clearing, about 60% is for “thinning”. The government has now recognised that “thinning is not a low-risk activity” and is removing the main provision that allows it, but is keeping some self-assessed thinning provisions, such as for advanced regrowth.
Other types of self-assessed clearing would continue, particularly the clearing of mulga forests for livestock fodder, albeit under a tighter code. This was a major concession to agricultural interests.
As the bill has not banned self-assessment outright, future land-clearing rates will ultimately depend on how stringent the new codes turn out to be in practice.
“Area Management Plans” are an older, parallel mechanism for allowing self-assessed clearing. Clearing under these plans accounts for up to 38% of clearing of regulated vegetation. The new legislation would phase out existing plans, but would retain a provision to make new area plans, including for thinning.
The government promised to protect “high conservation value regrowth”. This includes threatened ecosystems and species habitats that are needed for recovery. The new law would expand these definitions to regulate clearing of regrowing forests older than 15 years, and of regrowth alongside streams in all Great Barrier Reef catchments, not just the northern ones as at present.
This will bring more than a million hectares that are currently exempt under regulatory control, a major step forward. However, the bill excludes regrowth that has been “locked in” as exempt on property maps. Clearing of regulated regrowth may also still proceed under a new self-assessable code, which apparently lacks protections for endangered species habitats or ecosystems.
Exemptions pose a major stumbling block to the government’s promise to “protect remnant and high conservation value regrowth”. An area currently exempt on a regulatory map can be reclassified, and the government plans to do this for more than 1 million hectares of high conservation value regrowth. However, areas that have been “certified exempt” on a property map cannot be reversed – this represents 23 million hectares (13% of the state’s area). The government has reaffirmed its commitment not to reverse these exempt areas.
What’s more, the bill allows ongoing locking in of exemptions. This is a significant issue because more than 60% of all tree clearing is exempt. Most of this is in already locked-in areas, and a large fraction includes advanced regrowth of high conservation importance.
It remains to be seen how much the A$500 million Land Restoration Fund will protect these locked-in areas.
In light of these loopholes and exemptions, the new law looks set to fall short of what the Queensland government has promised. This is primarily due to ongoing reliance on self-assessed clearing and exempt areas. However, the proposed legislation and funding together should go some way towards turning around Queensland’s soaring land-clearing rates.
Tree clearing will continue to be a hotly contested policy space, and not just in Queensland. New South Wales recently trod the same path, placing a heavily reliance on self-assessed codes. These were recently challenged successfully in court. A similar challenge is under way in the Northern Territory, citing the greenhouse emissions caused by a large-scale clearing approval.
The federal opposition has also pledged to tighten land-clearing controls in national legislation. The tide may well be turning, albeit only slowly so far.
The authors acknowledge the contribution of Dr Martin Taylor, Protected Areas and Conservation Science Manager at WWF-Australia and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at The University of Queensland.
Anita J Cosgrove, Senior Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland
From place-based to problem-based campaigns, we are seeing a rise in initiatives aiming to foster collective environmental stewardship among concerned citizens across the globe. These international communities have arisen to meet new environmental challenges and seize the opportunities presented by our increasingly connected world.
Traditional approaches to community engagement have tended to focus only on the involvement of local people. However, the recently launched Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef initiative highlights the changing nature of community engagement aimed at fostering environmental stewardship.
In a globalised world, maintaining treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems affected by global-scale threats demands new approaches that involve participation not only of people living locally, but also those in distant places.
A connected world
Today’s environmental problems tend to be characterised by social and environmental connections with distant places.
In terms of environmental connections, places such as the Great Barrier Reef are increasingly affected by global threats. These include: poor water quality associated with port dredging driven by international mining; reef fisheries influenced by national and international markets; and, most importantly, coral bleaching caused by climate change. Social and political action beyond the local is need to combat these threats.
Social connections are increasing through both ease of travel and social media and other forms of virtual communication. This provides opportunities to engage more people across the globe to take meaningful action than ever before. People are able to form and maintain attachments to special places no matter where they are in the world.
Our recent research, involving more than 5,000 people from over 40 countries, shows that people living far from the Great Barrier Reef can have strong emotional bonds comparable to locals’ attachments. These bonds can be strong enough to motivate them to take action.
Harnessing social media
Increasing social connections across the globe don’t only allow people in distant locations to maintain their attachments to a place. They also provide a vehicle to leverage those attachments into taking meaningful actions to protect these places.
Such strategies can now be used even in the most remote of locations – such as 60 metres above the forest floor in a remote part of Tasmania.
During her 451-day tree sit, activist Miranda Gibson co-ordinated an online action campaign. She was able to engage a global audience through blogging, live streaming and posting videos and photos.
Social media provide a new way to foster a sense of community among people far and wide. In this sense, “community” doesn’t have to be local; individuals with common interests and identities can share a sense of community globally. Indeed, this is a key ingredient for collective action.
Employing images and language targeted to appeal to people’s shared attachments to a place can help increase collective stewardship of that place.
These global communities reflect “imagined communities”, a concept developed by political scientist Benedict Anderson to analyse nationalism. Anderson suggests that nations are imagined in the sense that members “will never know most of their fellow members or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
Such communities of environmental stewardship can have significant impact. For example, this type of community – which UTAS Professor Libby Lester termed “transnational communities of concern” – played a key role in the decline in Japanese market demand for Tasmanian forest products.
An important challenge in engaging distant communities in environmental stewardship is to avoid the pitfalls of “slacktivism”.
This refers to the phenomenon of people taking online actions that require little effort, such as joining a Facebook group. It makes them feel good about contributing to a cause but can stop them from taking further action that has real on-the-ground impacts.
More meaningful options are available to people in remote places that can result in real change. These include lobbying national governments, international organisations (such as the World Heritage Committee), or transnational corporations (to prioritise corporate social responsibility, for example). Most organisations that have successfully engaged distant people in environmental stewardship, including Fight for Our Reef, have tended to take a political approach to help with lobbying efforts.
Other meaningful actions that can be undertaken remotely include supporting relevant NGOs and reducing individual consumption.
A new approach to global citizenship
The Citizens for the Reef emphatically state that they are “not looking for Facebook likes” but seek “real action”.
The six actions being promoted include reducing consumption of four disposable products, eliminating food wastage, and financially supporting crown-of-thorns starfish control. Signed-up citizens are given an “impact score”, based on undertaking these actions and recruiting others, and can compare their progress to others around the world.
The initiative provides an example of a new form of environmental activism that is emerging in response to increasing global environmental and social connection. The significant challenge for this initiative is to gain the sustained engagement of enough people to achieve real-world impact.
Ultimately, however, while the local to global public certainly have a critical part to play in addressing these threats, this does not diminish the responsibility of government and the private sector for safeguarding the future livelihood of the Great Barrier Reef.