Shame no barrier to Beijing’s puffery on the Great Barrier Reef | Satya Marar
Just as tensions continue to rise between Australia and China, a UNESCO World Heritage Committee draft recommendation came out last month to classify our beloved Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’. Far from genuine environmental concern, it’s likely no coincidence that the body is headed by a Chinese representative, and that 14 out of 21 of its members are indebted to the communist regime thanks to their involvement in its multibillion dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Of course, this hasn’t stopped a coterie of environmentalists from rejoicing about the prospect of the reef and the environmental issues around it receiving more attention. But make no mistake, protecting our reef and safeguarding the environment doesn’t mean that any of us have to become useful idiots for an authoritarian and expansionist foreign power that has pulled no punches in its geopolitical tiff with Australia, and that needs to clean its own house first before lecturing Australians about the environment or climate change.
For starters, let’s consider the committee’s underlying reasoning. They cite the impacts of climate change and coral bleaching episodes in 2016, 2017 and 2020, as well as reduced water quality due to sediment runoff from the Australian mainland. While these historical episodes may be concerning, the most recent surveys conducted in 2021 by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found no coral bleaching, and that coral cover has still continued to increase significantly. It now sits at 28% – outstripping the levels measured during the 1980s when reef surveys were first conducted. It must be noted that 2020-21 was a year of relatively low disturbance for the reef. But the findings also demonstrate that isolating bleaching episodes or ignoring the positive impacts of existing conservation efforts risks painting a misleading picture about the reef’s future prospects.
In any case, it’s unsurprising that these facts weren’t adequately considered by the committee since UN representatives haven’t even visited the reef since 2012, and haven’t raised concerns about it since 2015. But they aren’t the only circumstances that suggest a political motive to the surprise draft recommendation at a time when the Queensland and federal governments are pouring record sums into reef conservation. $2.5 billion was spent in 2020 alone, alongside stricter laws around shrinking the volume of sediment run-off and clearing of land in mainland catchment areas. If passed, the recommendation would also depart from pre-existing UNESCO processes. Other natural or culturally significant wonders, including Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and the city of Venice, have been flagged as ‘in danger’ multiple times in recent years, but a decision on downgrading their status to ‘in danger’ still remains to be made.
As for climate change, it’s a global problem that impacts all reefs worldwide. No single country acting unilaterally can hope to manage it. Especially not Australia, which barely contributes 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. What we do means nothing unless it can compel other nations globally to follow suit. Even UNESCO itself has failed to agree on a broad approach to climate change management.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Australia doesn’t have a high per-capita share of emissions, or that we shouldn’t or can’t do our part to lower emissions. Legalising clean and reliable nuclear energy would be a great start. And ongoing innovations in hydroelectric power, wind, solar and lithium battery technology for storing and dispatching intermittent renewable energy when needed, will continue to drive the decarbonisation of our electricity grids. As will a gradual shift away from emissions-intensive animal agriculture with the growing popularity, quality and gradually improving affordability of plant-based meat alternatives.
But none of this requires downgrading the Great Barrier Reef’s status. All that will achieve is damage to Australia’s tourism sector and the hardworking entrepreneurs and workers who drive it and who are already suffering from Covid-19 and its associated culling of their industry through restrictions like border closures. Damage to Australia’s reputation and that of the reef will only deter patronage of reef tours, cruises and diving expeditions, as well as deterring visitors from checking out reef tourism-reliant cities and towns like Cairns. The adverse economic impacts will only make preserving the reef and shoring up the necessary resources and funds for that purpose more difficult.
It would also play right into communist China’s hands. By now, it’s no secret that Beijing wants to economically weaken or even cripple Australia by whatever means it can in response to a range of perceived slights. These include questioning the secretive regime on its role in Covid-19, preventing Chinese national champion firm Huawei from building our national 5G infrastructure due to cybersecurity concerns, and tearing up Victoria’s “Belt and Road” deal on national security and interest grounds. So far, other Chinese government ploys, like placing tariffs on our wheat and barley exports, have failed to cause massive harm. And Beijing is still smarting over its ongoing failure to find a better supplier of the quality iron ore that their country still needs for its development than us.
Attempting to bring the Great Barrier Reef into their disputes with us is a new low. Especially considering China’s own record on climate change and coral reefs. China is rapidly expanding coal-fired power and supports its domestic fossil fuel industry with billions in subsidies every year. China’s CO2 emissions rose by 2% in 2019 whilst Australia’s fell by 0.9%. Is China going to reconsider its own emissions output in the event that the barrier reef’s status is downgraded to ‘in danger’? Unlikely. If the Chinese government cared that much about coral reef health then they’d be stymying the activity of Chinese fishing trawlers in the Spratly Islands, which have been responsible for helping to spread coral-destroying algae around the reefs there. The extensive dumping of sewage in the South China Sea has also caused immense damage, with the Philippines recently accusing China of turning the sea into “a cesspool of faeces.” And I haven’t even mentioned the damage caused by dumping concrete and other sediments into the area as part of territorial expansionist plans in the area through creating artificial islands.
China is the last government that should be lecturing Australia about climate change or the Great Barrier Reef. And any attempt to reclassify the reef’s status or modify our conservation approach should be informed by independent and objective processes that aren’t skewed by bad faith political actors with ulterior motives. Especially when that actor is a regime that has an environmental record comparable to its abysmal record on human rights.