Federal environment minister Greg Hunt has announced the make-up of the Independent Expert Panel of 16 leading experts who will advise the government on actions and priorities relating to the Great Barrier Reef. As an Australian who is passionate about the future of our Reef, I am honoured to have been selected and stand ready to serve.
Over recent years there have been lots of panels, and even more reports, about the Reef and its health. So what will the new one bring to the table?
We will mainly be advising on how best to progress with the Reef 2050 Plan – the umbrella for protecting and managing the Great Barrier Reef from today until 2050. It is a key component of the federal and Queensland governments' response to the recommendations of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
Recent concerns over whether or not the Great Barrier Reef should be added to the official list of World Heritage In Danger rested partly on whether or not state and federal governments are taking appropriate steps to reverse the Reef’s clear decline over the past several decades.
The Reef 2050 Plan, announced earlier this year by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk, together with federal and state environment ministers, aims to protect the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) that define the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The plan consists of hundreds of actions, as well as several clear targets, such as:
Improving water quality by reducing dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads in priority areas by at least 50% by 2018, on the way to achieving an overall reduction of 80% in inorganic nitrogen by 2025.
Reducing pesticide loads by at least 60% in priority areas by 2018
Improving the net condition of natural wetlands and riverside vegetation by 2020
Stabilising or increasing the populations of dolphins, dugongs and turtles by 2020.
While the plan been criticised by the Australian Academy of Science as being too modest in scope, these targets nevertheless represent a considerable challenge, particularly given the short deadlines. And the targets and deadlines are consistent with the seriousness of the specific problems facing the Great Barrier Reef.
The new independent expert panel features a balance of expertise, including ecologists, water quality experts and climate change experts, as well as agricultural and conservation scientists. Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb will chair the panel, which besides supporting the implementation and review of the Reef 2050 Plan will also advise on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, help guide the Reef Trust, and perform other related actions aimed at reversing the downward trend of the Reef’s health.
This panel will also interact with the recently established Great Barrier Reef Water Science Task Force, chaired by Queensland’s Chief Scientist Geoff Garrett. Given the complex set of arrangements for protecting the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland will also be looking at the issue from its own perspective.
All eyes are now on Australia, with this being the first of many steps to be taken by the federal government to reverse the decline of one of the nation’s (and the world’s) greatest environmental assets. With a rapidly changing climate posing one of the severest threats the Great Barrier Reef, federal government leadership is also required at the United Nations Paris climate summit later this year.
Reducing Australia’s contribution to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases remains an urgent priority. Meanwhile, tackling the ever-present dangers from declining coastal water quality remains critically important for Australia and its Great Barrier Reef.