David Ritter explores the persistence of threats to the Great Barrier Reef

25 September 2017

The deterioration of the world’s ecology is an existential challenge to global governance.

World Heritage, Government Action and Private Finance

While global instruments such as the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change were established with the specific remedial purposes of addressing systemic stresses on planetary boundaries, it is perhaps trite to observe that in the end all global governance is ultimately contingent on a biosphere that can support civilisation.

We are now living in what has been dubbed the ‘Age of Consequences’, where global warming and massive biodiversity loss are having severe socio-political and economic impacts and putting severe pressure on global governance bodies. To take one particularly contentious example, tensions around the effectiveness of UNESCO due to systemic deterioration of the global environment militates against the effectiveness of site-specific preservation mechanisms by states.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef exemplifies the problem. The Great Barrier Reef has experienced unprecedented levels of coral bleaching over the last two years. Bleaching occurs when the marine algae known as zooxanthellae, which live symbiotically within the polyps and are the source of most of the nutrition on which the corals rely to thrive, are expelled during high ocean temperatures. Particularly severe bleaching events will kill the coral.

The Great Bleaching over the last two years – almost certainly caused by global warming – is an environmental catastrophe, reaching two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.  The appalling figures are rendered even more stark, when it is recalled that the Great Barrier Reef had already lost more than 50% of its coral cover on 1985 baseline figures by 2012.

The Australian Government has been engaged in a long struggle to try to reassure the global community that it is doing its best to protect the Great Barrier Reef.  At a policy level this has included various measures that are wrapped up in the Reef 2050 Plan.  Infamously though, the Reef 2050 Plan does not address climate change as a critical factor endangering the Reef. At a political and ideological level, the Australian government has sought to control the discourse by actively lobbying, censoring and deal-making to try and avoid censure or opprobrium for the extensive damage to the Reef.

In May 2015 the UNESCO report on the state of conservation of properties inscribed on the world heritage list raised critical concerns over the state of the Great Barrier Reef. The report recommended that it should be placed on the world heritage “in danger” list in 2015 unless the reef is protected. Earlier this year UNESCO revisited this question and decided to not to list the reef as ‘in danger’.  

The big lie propagated by the Australian government is that the Great Barrier Reef can be protected without reducing global carbon emissions.  However, scientists have made it abundantly clear that this is not the case.  The viability of coral reefs depends on an effective and rapid response to global warming.  Australia is infamous as a global climate policy laggard.  Emissions from Australian coal exports vastly exceeds the country’s total domestic emissions and there appears to be no political will on the part of the national government to stop the expansion of the industry on climate grounds.

The fate of the Reef also raises significant questions for the business sector in the context of global governance.  Over recent decades private governance has been regarded as an increasingly significant contribution to meeting environmental challenges.  A whole host of major corporations responded to the Paris Agreement by pledging their commitment to the target of below 2 degrees.  

In an Australian context one prominent signatory was the Commonwealth Bank – the nation’s biggest public company and largest bank by market capitalisation.  However the Commonwealth Bank remains the most structurally significant provider of private finance to the fossil fuel industry in Australia.  Earlier this year Mr Ian Narev, the current CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, in giving evidence before a parliamentary inquiry, was not able to provide a single example of a project that had been refused finance because of his bank’s purported commitment to the emissions targets in the Paris Agreement.  Given the dire threats to the future of the Great Barrier Reef – not to mention the other consequences of global warming – a failure to meaningfully act on private commitments made to global rules and norms poses a major reputational hazard to businesses like the Commonwealth Bank.

This article first appeared in Global Policy on the 21/09/2017