Billions in 'magical' spending questioned as coral reefs fail around the world

Climate change has been singled out as the leading cause of bleaching across the world's coral reefs.

A mass bleaching event is devastating the world’s coral reefs. It’s the fourth on record and worryingly the second in the last 10 years, according to US government scientists.

With the Great Barrier Reef among the worst affected sites, the announcement has sparked frustration in Australia with conservationists accusing the government of “setting a poor example” when it comes to climate-change policy.

World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia’s Richard Leck urged the Albanese government to commit to a 90 per cent emissions reduction by 2035. "This event drives home that no reef anywhere is safe from the impacts of climate change. As caretaker of the most famous reef in the world, Australia needs to lead by example on climate action. Instead, our emissions reduction targets are nowhere near ambitious enough," he said.

Right -  Tanya Plibersek in parliament looking concerned. Left - bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef with an island in the background.
While Tanya Plibersek maintains we must do "everything we can to protect" the Great Barrier Reef, conservationists have criticised the government for continuing to approve new coal mines. Source: George Roff, CSIRO/AAP

More than $2 billion has been committed by the Albanese and Morrison governments to protect and manage the Great Barrier Reef, with portions of the money earmarked for coral restoration and remediating land to reduce sediment run-off.

Despite the high-profile funding announcements, bleaching events have actually continued to become more severe and frequent — the reef is now experiencing its fifth in just eight years with around 80 per cent subjected to heat stress. Coral affected during a previous bleaching has died before its reached seven years of age.

“Nothing much has changed,” James Cook University’s Professor Terry Hughes warned yesterday in relation to efforts to tackle pollution and breed more resilient coral. “None of these expensive, magical fixes have reduced the vulnerability of the Great Barrier Reef to anthropogenic heating.”

A photo taken in March 2024 shows severe coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Source: George Roff, CSIRO
A photo taken in March 2024 shows severe coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Source: George Roff, CSIRO

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Which coral reefs are affected by the bleaching?

The global bleaching event was confirmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which said it could impact economies, livelihoods and food security.

Mentioned alongside Australia, were reefs in Florida, the Caribbean, Brazil, the eastern Tropical Pacific, large areas of the South Pacific including Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Samoas and French Polynesia, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden.

NOAA's director of coral reef conservation, Jennifer Koss, linked the devastation to climate change. “Climate model predictions for coral reefs have been suggesting for years that bleaching impacts would increase in frequency and magnitude as the ocean warms,” she said.

Coral bleaching on the Eyrie Reef with two images side by side from 2023, then 2024.
Coral bleaching on the Eyrie Reef in Queensland. Source: George Roff, CSIRO

What does Australia's government have to say?

Responding to NOAA’s announcement, Australia’s environment minister Tanya Plibersek said the “biggest threat” to coral reefs is climate change.

“The Great Barrier Reef is no exception. The health of the Reef is vital for the 64,000 people who rely on it for work, and the plants and animals that call the Reef home,” she said.

Many within previous Coalition governments had been reluctant to take action to reduce emissions, with former prime minister Tony Abbott calling the climate crisis "absolute crap" in 2019. Three years earlier One Nation leader Pauline Hanson visited a healthy section of the Great Barrier Reef in an apparent attempt to show it was actually healthy, despite other areas being severely bleached. "We can't have these lies put across by people with their own agendas," she said.

But Plibersek has claimed Labor has now “put an end to political fights” about climate change and the government has committed to more ambitious emissions reduction targets than its predecessor.

“We’ve legislated to reach net zero, with a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 and committed to reaching 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030. And we’re investing a record $1.2 billion in the Reef including to ensure we have the best science on reef adaptation and resilience,” Plibersek said.

“It’s essential we do everything we can to protect this amazing place for our kids and grandkids,” she added.

Aust government not doing enough, conservationists say

Despite these policy advances by the government, conservationists and green groups have criticised its decision to ignore United Nations advice and support several new fossil fuel projects by energy giants including Santos and Woodside.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society's Dr Lissa Schindler called for further reductions in emissions. "The Australian Government may say we’re doing our bit to battle climate change and protecting the Great Barrier Reef, but the reality is Australia is the third biggest exporter of what is causing the unprecedented marine heatwaves that are bleaching coral reefs around the world – fossil fuels," she said.

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