The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef caused by climate change would not only destroy one of the world’s greatest natural wonders but would cost Australia $37.7 billion over the next century and devastate tourism in the north, a study has found.
Calling the study report ”a wake-up call” to the serious threat from climate change, Dr John Schubert, the chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, said the study found that half the tourists who visit the reef would stay away if it suffered permanent and total bleaching.
Bleaching occurs when rising water temperature, salinity or acidity in seawater affects the corals. It can kill the corals if the conditions continue for a month or more. The threat to the reef from coral bleaching is one of the most popularly recognised effects of climate change.
If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced globally, the Great Barrier Reef is expected to be one of the first of Australia’s World Heritage sites seriously damaged. But Dr Schubert warned that with climate change happening much faster than predicted, Australia must plan to ”adapt” the reef to save it from some level of damage scientists say is inevitable.
”There needs to be extra emphasis on the adaptation side,” said Dr Schubert, who is also the outgoing chairman of the Commonwealth Bank and sits on the board of BHP-Billiton and Qantas. He said the report by Oxford Economics was a conservative assessment of the losses if the reef was damaged by permanent bleaching.
The value of the reef to the Cairns region was $17.9 billion over 100 years, and the area would lose up to 90 per cent of that. ”These figures paint a disturbing picture both for tourism generally and for those local communities that benefit directly from their proximity to the reef,” he said.
Dr Schubert said cutting greenhouse gas emissions was crucial for the reef but the foundation was looking at some radical ideas to save as much of it as possible as climate change accelerates, ”so that more of the reef will last no matter how many emissions there are”.
Among the ideas being examined is the possibility of corals from the north of the reef that can withstand higher temperatures being brought south. However, if that was done there might be unintended consequences.
Despite the timing of the report’s publication, Dr Schubert declined to comment on whether the Federal Government’s emissions trading scheme should be passed by the Senate this week. But while saying it was an issue for the politicians, he did believe Australia needed to play its role ”in ensuring something happens and happens quickly”.
According to new figures made public by the Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong, Australia’s emissions would continue to rise if the carbon pollution reduction scheme did not become law. Even though Australia’s emissions have slowed with the financial crisis, they continue to rise 1.6 per cent each year.
Senator Wong said Australia faced a huge challenge to reduce its emissions even by as little as 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020.
”This is the equivalent to halving the carbon pollution that comes from electricity generation and transport between 2011 and 2020.”