Jan 28, 2022 - World

Australian PM pledges $700M for climate change-threatened Great Barrier reef

 A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at lady Elliot island

A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday a AU$1 billion ($703 million) investment plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters: The nine-year plan for projects including water quality improvement, reef conservation and supporting some 64,000 tourism jobs comes months ahead of this year's federal election. It has been criticized by scientists and environmental groups for failing to tackle climate change.

  • The world's largest coral reef ecosystem has lost more than half of its coral populations in the past three decades due to ocean warming and it has experienced massive coral bleaching events in recent years.

By the numbers: Morrison said in a statement that the pledge would extend his government's investment under the Reef 2050 Plan to more than $3 billion.

The big picture: Australia has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since the Omicron variant arrived in the country. Morrison has faced criticism of his recent handling of the pandemic and angered some aged care sector officials for suggesting Australians "push through" the Omicron outbreak.

  • The country recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far on Friday, with 98 people confirmed to have died from the coronavirus.
  • The northeast state of Queensland, where the reef is located, is set to be a key battleground in the election, which must be held no later than May 21.
  • Morrison said in his statement, "We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy."

What they're saying: The independent nonprofit Australian Climate Council issued a statement Friday comparing the government's reef plan to putting a "Band-aid on a broken leg."

  • "Unless you are cutting emissions deeply this decade the situation on the Reef will only get worse," said climate scientist and Professor of Biology at Macquarie University, Professor Lesley Hughes in the statement.
"Any additional funding for the environment in Australia is welcome, as it is severely under-resourced. However, handing out cash for the Great Barrier Reef with one hand, while funding the very industry — fossil fuels — that's driving devastating climate impacts like marine heatwaves and coral bleaching, means they are adding to the very problem they are claiming they want to fix."
— Professor Lesley Hughes
  • Greenpeace Australia's Martin Zavan accused the government in a statement of "ignoring the number one driver" of the Great Barrier Reef's decline: "climate change caused by burning fossil fuels."
  • "A marine heatwave is causing coral bleaching in parts of the Reef right now," Zavan said. "If a mass bleaching event is declared it would be the fourth in six years when these events previously happened once in a generation."

The other side: Environment Minister Sussan Ley — who last year successfully campaigned for the reef not to be included on UNESCO's World Heritage Committee "in danger" list despite recommendations — on Friday pushed back on such concerns.

  • "You can see the reef from outer space, but not from an office in Paris," Ley said, per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
  • "Our farmers, tourism operators and fishers are our reef champions and we are supporting them through practical water and land-based strategies that will contribute significantly to the health of the reef," she added.

What's next: The Australian government is due to update the United Nations within days on its plans to protect the reef, the BBC notes.

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