By ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government on Friday pledged to spend another 1 billion Australian dollars ($704 million) over nine years on improving the health of the Great Barrier Reef after stalling a UNESCO decision on downgrading the natural wonder’s World Heritage status.
Critics argue the investment is a bid to improve the ruling conservative coalition’s green credentials ahead of looming elections while doing nothing to change the greatest threat to the coral: rising ocean temperatures.
Of the funding, AU$580 million will go toward working with land managers along Australia’s northeast coast to remediate erosion, improve land conditions and reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff.
Another AU$253 million will support the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which manages the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, in efforts to reduce threats from the crown-of-thorns starfish and to prevent illegal fishing.
Also, AU$93 million is slated for research to make the reef more resilient and to boost adaptation strategies.
“We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
In July last year, Australia garnered enough international support to defer an attempt by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, to downgrade the reef’s World Heritage status to “in danger“ because of damage caused by climate change.
The reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The bleaching damaged two-thirds of the coral.
But the question will be back on the World Heritage Committee’s agenda at its next annual meeting in June.
UNESCO had asked Australia to provide more information by next Tuesday about what’s being done to protect the coral. The government said on Friday it will meet that deadline.
The opposition Labor Party’s deputy leader Richard Marles dismissed the funding announcement as posturing.
“You cannot be serious about supporting the Great Barrier Reef if you are not serious about action on climate change. Scott Morrison is not,” Marles said.
Labor says Australia would set a more ambitious target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by the end of the decade if the government changes hands in elections due by May.
Morrison was widely criticized at a U.N. climate summit in Scotland in November over his government’s target of reducing Australia’s emissions by only 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030.
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