With Great Barrier Reef showing signs of recovery, Australia takes steps to combat climate change

In a dramatic shift, Australia took a step Thursday toward combating climate change when the lower house of its Parliament passed a bill committing to reducing carbon emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by the year 2030, and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the legislation would put Australia “on the right side of history.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stands to deliver a speech, as three MPs, wearing masks, sit on a green bench behind him.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addresses Parliament on July 26. (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)

Australia is the third-largest fossil fuel exporter, after Saudi Arabia and Russia, and it has among the world's highest emissions per capita. Its previous government, under the center-right Liberal Party, resisted action to address climate change. Last year, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, also known as COP26, Australia refused to join 39 countries that pledged to phase out financing for coal abroad, and it refused to join the more than 100 nations that promised to reduce methane emissions, even as other fossil fuel producers, including the United States and Canada, signed on to the pledges. Australia is already suffering the effects of climate change, however, including devastating brush fires and severe flooding from extreme rainfall events.

A bulk carrier docked at the Newcastle Coal Terminal as a crane unloads its cargo.
A bulk carrier docked in Newcastle, Australia, on May 6. (Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But in May, the center-left Labor Party — which had campaigned on proposed legislation like the new bill — won a majority in Parliament. With the support from the farther-left Australian Greens, the new government is expected to push the legislation through the Senate later this month. The Greens had initially proposed a 75% emissions cut by 2030, but reluctantly agreed to support the Labor bill as a first step toward more ambitious action.

“The impact of climate change is real. We need a response which is real,” Albanese told reporters on Thursday.

The passage of the climate bill in Parliament came on a day when Australia received some good news about the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. A report from the Australian government released on Thursday finds that parts of the reef now have the highest levels of coral cover seen there in decades.

Two clownfish, orange with white stripes, swim through a bank of sea anemones.
Clownfish in anemone on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 2014. (Kevin Boutwell via Getty Images)

In a boon to the future of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s new government announced Thursday it would stop development of a nearby coal mine due to the potential impact on the reef.

Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said government studies suggested mine sediments from the Central Queensland Coal Project would make their way into the ocean and damage the nearby reef.

“Based on the information available to me at this stage, I believe that the project would be likely to have unacceptable impacts to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and the values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and National Heritage Place,” Plibersek said in a statement.

Famous for incubating a diverse array of plants and animals, the reef is the world’s largest coral ecosystem. It accounts for roughly 10% of the world's coral reef ecosystems and includes approximately 3,000 reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays. A popular spot for snorkeling and scuba diving, it accounts for 64,000 full-time jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, showing it separated from the coastline by a wide ribbon of ocean stretching for miles into the distance. (Getty Images)
The Great Barrier Reef in 2005. (Getty Images)

Climate change and other consequences of human activity have severely damaged it in recent years. The reef “has lost half its coral cover, pollution has caused deadly starfish outbreaks, and global warming has produced horrific coral bleaching,” according to the World Wildlife Fund of Australia. Coral bleaching occurs when water gets too warm and corals expel the algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered four bleaching events since 2016.

“In the wake of the fourth mass bleaching event on the reef since 2016, it is vital new coal and gas projects like this one are refused,” Cherry Muddle, a Great Barrier Reef campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told the Guardian.

But portions of the UNESCO heritage site increased coral cover in the last year, reaching levels not seen in 36 years of monitoring, according to the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Scientists surveyed 87 sites and found that northern and central parts of the reef had rebounded, thanks mainly to fast growth of a branching coral known as Acropora. The southern section of the reef is still losing coral cover, however.

A scuba diver in mask, flippers and an oxygen tank maneuvers past a colorful bank of coral.
A scuba diver explores coral at the Great Barrier Reef in 2020. (Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Rising global temperatures due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere continue to pose a threat to the reef, scientists say. And while Australia’s first government-wide action to address the problem is a notable step forward, its pledge of a 43% emissions cut still falls short of commitments from the United States and the European Union. The U.S. has pledged to reduce emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and the EU has promised a 55% cut from 1990 levels.


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