The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet and one of the natural wonders of the world, but it’s an ecosystem in danger – unless experts and government find agreement on restoration strategies and climate change mitigation.

Current projections show that in the next 10 years, Australia’s CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 69 metric tonnes 

Associate Professor David Sugget is Leader of the Future Reefs Program at the UTS Climate Change Cluster. He puts it bluntly: “… we’ve lost 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef in 25 years because of climate change.

“The people that are the policymakers really need to be accountable for that statistic. That’s the bottom line.”

This year, the North, South and Central reefs have all suffered bleaching – the first time since 1998.

A 2019-2020 survey by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) found “the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) were beginning to recover from the recent disturbance history; however, the third mass coral bleaching event in five years will likely be a set-back to their recovery”.

Coral reefs have been noted to rival the biodiversity of rainforests such as the Amazon but cover less than one per cent of the ocean. And yet, 25 per cent of all marine life depends on them. 

According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), “Climate Change remains the single greatest challenge to the Reef.”

The South Pacific

To ensure the GBR can be protected and sustainably used, the more than 348,000 square kilometre reef has been zoned by the GBRMPA into different levels of protection

Dr. Kate Quigley, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in reef restoration and adaptation at AIMS, says the “mosaic” of protection levels are “arguably probably best managed in the world”, with the utilisation of different managing bodies means being able to collaborate about strategies, policies, or legislation regarding restoration and conservation.

Dr. Carly Randall, benthic and restoration ecologist at AIMS, says the management of acute stressors for a “massive, massive area of reef” is exceptional. However, the dominant stressor affecting the GBR is climate change, which is “beyond the purview of the Marine Park Authority”.

Other reefs in the South Pacific are also feeling the effects of climate change, such as New Caledonia. In 2015-16, temperatures reached 29 – 30 degrees celsius, which according to Jean-Rene Deleforterie, a Snorkel Tour Guide in Signal Island, Noumea, resulted in the “white phenomena”. He noted 70% of corals were bleached in Noumea in 2016 preceding the 30% coral loss. 

In 2018, New Caledonia voted to protect 100% of their exclusive economic zone as a marine park. They are currently working on implementing different levels of protection. Mr. Deleforterie says as an example, the Marine Reserve level on Signal Island has been successful for protection but does not deny the fact that “the water temperature has to decrease”.

Cultural Vs. Commerce

The cultural value placed on the reefs in New Caledonia, according to Mr. Deleforterie, means it is a part of the “spirit of the people” to protect it. He says there is a “big reaction” from the local Melanesian population anytime something happens to the reef, and they “protect them”.

Mr. Deleforterie says industry doesn’t take precedence over the safety and security of the reef; despite New Caledonia’s main source of income being Nickel. “If an industry is doing very badly with the reef, they’re [locals] able to go and stop the industry and block the gate of the industry. So this is why they take more care”.

Mr. Deleforterie says that despite the difference in immediate action, he believes  there are many Australians that share “the same spirit”. He says “the Great Barrier, for the Australian is very important but there is some carbon company[sic] that don’t care about the reef. . . the industry is money and so they sell an image of themselves”

Professor David Suggett says that “modern Australia culture” highlights the concept of global travel with the Great Barrier Reef as an international icon: bringing in six billion dollars per year for Australia and marketing power that won’t go away overnight.

Dr. Randall says that “in a country that is driven by commerce, people understand when you speak in dollars”. While it helps to contextualise the economic value of the reef the “intrinsic biodiversity value of the ecosystem” is something that is harder to describe.

“How do you put a dollar value on the biodiversity that a system provides?”

– Dr. Carly Randall

Professor Suggett says “disconnect probably is the right word between the cultural value and the economic value”. The economic value reflects modern culture and what we refer to as cultural value reflects indigenous cultural value. He says that this spotlight on the economic function of the GBR can in a sense, “overshadow the fact that we still actually don’t centralise Indigenous cultural value well within the “why” and “how” of reef management”.

Dr. Randall says “there is no one right way to go [about it]; when you talk about it in those different terms, it speaks to different people.”

Dr. Quigley says while there may be arguments that we are undervaluing the cultural significance of our reef, there may be a possibility of New Caledonia underestimating the potential economic value of theirs. She says “there is more opportunity to gain understanding from both aspects instead of saying maybe one is better than the other.”

The Plan

Reports show that fossil fuels accounted for 82.9% of electricity production in Australia in 2017-18; only decreasing by 0.5% and renewables increasing by 10.4%. Without the emissions reduction, Australia’s 2020-2030 CO2 emissions were projected to increase by 69 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent.

“The people that are the policymakers really need to be accountable for that statistic. That’s the bottom line” says Professor David Sugget.

Fossil fuel burning is the main influence on anthropogenic climate change and it would be “a no brainer not to have it”, says Professor Suggett. The resolution includes transitioning to renewable energy and pushing for it to be implemented as fast as possible, “but it just feels frustratingly slow”.

Leaders being able to remove science from the agenda or dismiss evidence in favour of opposing opinion undermines public trust in science and ends up giving people the “licence” to dismiss worries about climate change. 

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has set a target to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. The renewable energy target is 23% of our electricity being delivered by renewables by the end of 2020.The ACT is considered the nations “climate action capital” with delivering 100% renewable energy and reports to maintain this into the next decade.

New Caledonia’s 2030 plan includes reductions by 35% in the residential and tertiary sector, 10% in mining and metallurgy and 15% in transport. Their renewable energy plan includes renewables production representing “100% of electricity consumption by public distribution” and “electric autonomy in the islands” by 2030. 

However, these efforts aren’t just isolated to the South Pacific. The capacity for one country to offset their emissions is at the mercy of others; countries with a blue economy have reefs that are “still drastically deteriorating from climate change”. 

Professor Suggett says the “narrative” concerning climate change policy is in a constant flux and the individual country targets make it difficult to see the global picture. He says Australia’s efforts “should be disproportionately higher because of the emissions”.

Limiting the average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius is possible if global net CO2 emissions reach zero by 2050 according to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. However, the “lack of global cooperation, governance of the required energy and land transformation, and increases in resource-intensive consumption” are our current roadblocks.

Dr. Randall says that even within the scenario of greenhouse gas emissions dropping to zero in a day, thermal inertia would cause temperatures to continue to rise until it equalises.

The Current Coral

When she arrived in Australia, Dr. Quigley had never seen a bleaching event. Then witnessed the loss of “thousands of corals” during the 2017 and 2020 bleachings. She says the experience was like “working in a house on fire”. The “pace and severity” of rising temperatures so far have coincided with bleaching events causing a change for marine studies. “It really shifted the conversation from how do we understand these ecosystems to how do we protect these ecosystems before it’s too late” she says.

Restoration strategies have been implemented to “buy the reef time.” These involve collaboration between different industries and countries. The Future Reefs program currently works with stakeholders of the GBR to shift from ‘passive interventions’ such as preservation to ‘active interventions’ where stakeholders can actively be involved in the restoration process of the GBR. 

Some restoration processes involved fragmentation (also known as coral gardening), where fragments of corals are fastened to platforms to regrow in a different area. This process also occurs naturally when waves break apart corals and the fragments reattach to other areas. Dr. Randall says using this “generates a lot of coral”, but it’s limited in its genetic diversity. This means vulnerabilities – such as disease or predators – are spread out across the population and could be devastating if subjected to them.

Sexual reproduction strategies allow for a maximised diverse gene pool. Dr. Randall notes this as a positive as natural selection will “act on a diverse genetic population”.

Assisted gene-flow uses interbreeding techniques between corals from different climates, resulting in more temperature resilient colonies. However, Dr. Randall notes that there are always trade-offs to consider with genetics “because no one genetic individual is great at everything”.

Dr. Quigley says that “the kind of restoration that is going on around Australia at the moment takes advantage of each of these different mechanisms to try to improve the heat talents of corals more generally”. AIMS has over 40 different interventions being researched and developed under the Reef Restoration and Adaptation program. Due to reef systems being “one of the most complex, biodiverse ecosystems on the planet”, scaling up restoration projects to the size of reefs creates a challenge and any proposals are “rigorously tested” under scientific processes. 

Professor Suggett noted that while genetic research involving corals can maximise the genetic diversity and is “critical science” regarding restoration it’s still “five to ten years away of [sic] actually being deployable”.

Currently, the Future Reefs program with the UTS Climate Change Cluster is developing tools that can identify functional diversity to use within coral gardening. These tools are used to aid people on the reef trying to propagate coral “with what we call informed decision making”.

Super Coral

There was evidence to suggest that some corals were able to push themselves to their limits under conditions akin to what is being predicted under climate change but hadn’t previously been thought to be able to build reefs.

Professor Suggett says their collaborator in New Caledonia called them with information regarding coral colonies growing in mangrove lagoons. “So we obviously got on the quickest plane we could to New Caledonia and it quite simply was the most amazing system we’ve ever seen”. Professor Suggett says the mangrove lagoon was one of the hottest, most acidic and deoxygenated systems ever seen. “Nothing should be growing there”, but the corals there had formed reefs within the lagoon. These types of corals have since been dubbed “Super Corals”.

Using this to understand the geomorphology, a unique expedition led by Dr Emma Camp (UTS future Reefs) and Associate Professor David Suggett were able to find sites on the GBR with the same types of coral. These were usually discounted due to the risk involved with research. Professor Suggett says that the environments these corals grow also house saltwater crocodiles, sharks, and box jellyfish. “Everything you want to avoid lives in those systems”. Not exactly tourist-friendly.

As both the GBR and New Caledonia have suffered “catastrophic loss of corals through climate change”, Professor Suggett says the connection between them provided some hope for the survival of the reef. Whether these ‘Super Corals’ will be able to thrive is still unknown, but the research suggests that they may be able to survive predicted climate change effects. 

The Verdict

Small scale coral observations from aquarium hobbyists offer a “powerful datasource” or potential “resource reservoir”, in the potential case of losing coral, but are not likely to be able to be used on the same scale as the GBR.

It is the current consensus that climate change is the biggest threat to our reefs, but it’s not impossible to beat. Restoration strategies have been implemented to “buy the reef time” and as much effort that is going into these strategies, Dr. Randall says restoration and climate change mitigation go hand in hand. “None of this is going to have much of an effect if we don’t also get climate change under control and our greenhouse gas emissions under control”.

Dr. Quigley says “we’re not thinking that this kind of Band-Aid approach” and “none of the people in this kind of research field at the moment think that we’re going to fix an ecosystem that’s as complex and large as the Great Barrier Reef”. 

She says they are working with a lot of innovation in order to preserve and save as much as possible while persevering toward zero net emissions. This same technology and innovation will be “the first point of call” for renewable transition and Australia has a “lucky” advantage with the possibility of solar technology. 

“You know, we have this incredible natural resource. I want Australia to take full advantage of that” she says.

A smart grid with the ability to switch between different resources would provide constant reliable sources for facilities and the integration of battery technology could switch the focus from production to storage. She says the prospect is “exciting” as it provides an opportunity to transition from the “status quo” of carbon production and enter into a new financially competitive market. 

“Instead of saying, what do we have to change or sacrifice to deal with climate change? I think people should ask questions, what are the opportunities that technology offers us and that we can pivot to?”

Climate Change is the fundamental issue that we’re not going to solve tomorrow due to the complexities involving our current energy resources.

Professor Suggett says reef systems can actually start being rebuilt “in the face of climate change” but we “absolutely, categorically have to deal with climate change”.

“The first thing is don’t give up on the reef.”


 – Story and photographs by Roz Cameron @roslyncecilia