Great Barrier Reef: forest three times size of ACT cleared in past five years

Clearing of forests in reef catchment zone show Australia a global deforestation hotspot, campaigners say

osprey reef in the coral sea
Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. Deforestation causes damage to reefs through increased sediment and nutrient loads. Photograph: Daniela Dirscherl/Getty Images/WaterFrame RM

— New official data shows clearing of forests near and along the Great Barrier Reef continued despite Australian government pledges to protect the natural wonder, with at least 152,000 hectares felled in 2016-17 alone.

Forests covering 770,000ha – an area about three times the size of the Australian Capital Territory – in the reef catchment zone have been bulldozed over the past five years. The area cleared last year was larger in size than that covered by new re-growth.

Jessica Panegyres, a nature campaigner with the Wilderness Society, said it showed Australia should be considered a global deforestation hotspot on a par with the Amazon and Indonesia.

“The federal government has promised the world it is doing everything it can to protect the reef,” she said. “[It] has simply refused to act on deforestation, despite the major impacts on forests, wildlife, the reef and the climate.”

The figures are included in the latest national greenhouse gas emissions accounts, which the government quietly released on Friday afternoon in the shadow of the AFL and NRL grand finals. They showed Australia’s emissions increased 1.3% in the year to March 2018, continuing a trend at odds with the government’s repeated claim it is on track to meet the target it set at the 2015 Paris climate conference.

Deforestation increases nutrient and sediment run-off on to the reef coast, hurting water quality, stimulating algae growth and at times smothering corals. The government has spent billions addressing poor water quality, considered second only to climate change as a threat to the reef.

The land-clearing data for 2016-17 is described as a projection and does not include part of the Fitzroy river region. It was released as the government postponed a decision on whether to allow a farmer to clear nearly 2,000ha of forest at Kingvale station on Cape York. The federal environment minister, Melissa Price, is considering an environment department recommendation that the clearing, approved at state level in 2013 under the former premier Campbell Newman, be allowed despite the presence of endangered species.

Scientific advice to the government suggests allowing the Kingvale clearing would likely increase sediment run-off on to the reef. A decision is now due by the end of October.

Land-clearing spiked in Queensland after the former Liberal National government relaxed laws preventing mass deforestation. The Palaszczuk Labor government passed new land-clearing laws to restore earlier protections in May, prompting protests from farmers who said they needed to manage vegetation to produce the food and fibre expected by consumers.

Legacy clearing permits remain for about 115,000ha. Panegyres said Price could block outstanding permits using national environmental laws that empower the minister to intervene if threatened species were at risk or an activity was likely to have a significant impact on the reef.

Price said state and territory governments were primarily responsible for regulating land-clearing. She said the government’s Reef 2050 plan, submitted to Unesco, was focused on improving the reef’s resilience to climate change by reducing local pressures.

“We know climate change is a big issue for the reef and this is why we have invested over $400m to help protect the reef through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation,” she said.

The minister said the emissions reduction fund, the central plank of Tony Abbott’s Direct Action climate policy, had incentivised a reduction in land-clearing. About $2.3bn of the $2.55bn taxpayer fund has been spent or committed. No new money has been allocated since 2014.

More than $1bn from the fund had been used to pay for tree-planting and habitat restoration. Analysis of government data earlier this year found those emissions savings would effectively be wiped out by little more than two years of deforestation elsewhere in the country.


by Adam Morton | The Guardian