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Australia pledges millions to keep coral reef on UNESCO list

January 28, 2022

The Australian government is hoping to protect the natural phenomenon without cutting carbon emissions. Critics have slammed the proposal that comes just months ahead of an election.

A diver swimming above the corals of the Great Barrier Reef
The corals of the Great Barrier Reef have been hit hard by rising temperatures caused by carbon emissionsImage: Kyodo/MAXPPP/picture alliance

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that his government would pump AUS$1 billion (US$ 700 million/€627 million) into a nine-year plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

The vast network of corals makes up a vulnerable ecosystem and enticing tourist hot spot. However, the reef has been in a state of decline due to the effects of climate change and pollution.

The UN's world heritage agency, UNESCO, threatened last year to downgrade the natural feature to its "in danger" list. Protests from the Australian government led to a narrow escape.

"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," Morrison said on Friday, adding that the investment would help protect some 64,000 jobs.

Morrison on the campaign trail

Queensland will also prove a key battleground for Morrison's center-right Liberal Party in the upcoming election, expected to take place in May.

After a series of extreme weather events hit Australia in recent years, including devastating wildfires as well as droughts and flooding, many Australians now support policies to limit climate change.

A 2021 poll carried out by the Lowy Institute in Sydney found that 60% of the country believes "global warming is a serious and pressing problem."

Some 80% also support the net-zero emissions by 2050 target set by the government, reluctantly, before the G20 summit in Scotland late last year.

However, fossil fuels and mining play a big role in Australia's economy. It is one of the world's biggest exporters of coal and gas.

What about carbon emissions?

The Great Barrier Reef has come close to falling into the "in danger" list before. UNESCO made a similar threat in 2015, leading to the creation of the "Reef 2050" project by the Australian government, also supported by billions of dollars.

While experts believe the project had some effect, they point out that 98% of the reef has already been damaged by bleaching since 1998.

The money pledged by Morrison will largely go to improving water quality and monitoring ecosystems. But critics have questioned the lack of action on reducing carbon emissions.

Why does Australia refuse to give up coal? Climate change scientist Ian Lowe speaks to DW

The Australian environmental pressure group Climate Council slammed the government's new proposal, saying it was like 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 the council's Lesley Hughes, a biology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney.

"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 heat waves and coral bleaching, means they are adding to the very problem they are claiming they want to fix," she added.

ab/aw (AFP, Reuters)