Earlier this year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommended the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to climate-induced risk. They stated, there is “no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger.” 

The recommendation followed a review of policy and risk mitigation approaches, including the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, the Cumulative Impact Management Policy, the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (2017-2022) and the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019. These reports determined the long-term outlook of the reef to have declined steadily since the initial ‘in danger’ recommendation in 2015.

The final decision to list the reef as world heritage ‘in danger,’ was delayed until February 2022. As a result, UNESCO advised that the Australian Government urgently accelerate climate action in line with the Paris Agreement.

This call for climate action came prior to COP26, when Australia had no credible emissions reductions targets, nor plan to deliver net zero. With new reporting suggesting that only 2 per cent of Great Barrier Reef corals remain unaffected by bleaching, the question is: are the commitments made at COP26 ambitious enough to save the GBR?

What does COP26 mean for the reef?

COP26, or the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, has aimed to unite global leaders in the fight to secure positive climate futures. The summit, flagged as the most critical climate event of the decade, proposes to ramp up global action to ensure the 1.5 and “well below” 2 degrees targets of the Paris Agreement, and the objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are achieved.

With tropical GBR corals exceedingly sensitive to elevated sea surface temperatures and marine heatwaves, commitments made at COP26 to keep 1.5 alive are critical to not only managing global temperature, but reef wellbeing.

As temperature averages rise, so does the rate and intensity of events of mass coral bleaching. According to Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes and Professor Sean Connolly, instances of mass bleaching in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have caused the Great Barrier Reef to resemble “a checkerboard of bleached reefs.”

So, what exactly has Australia committed to?

Despite being criticised as a major climate laggard for lack of credible Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and a lousy net zero plan relying on a “gross manipulation” of data, Australia remains determined to not strengthen its 2030 target. Instead, the government has reiterated the insufficient, Abbott-era commitment to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 rates by 2030.

Sporting a clear lack of ambition, Australian leaders are adamant on pushing the narrative that Australia “meets and beats” its global commitments. With emissions projections suggesting, Australia will exceed its 2030 targets by 9 per cent, carrying us to 35 per cent below 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

By this logic, commitment to emissions reductions targets are trivial if we are to beat them anyways. This means that there is little to no accountability to ensure Federal measures are taken to ensure this target is in fact exceeded, or to commit to stronger targets in the future.  

Regardless of this projected 9 per cent lead, The Climate Council still recommends that Australia cut emissions to 75 per cent below 2005 rates by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035. This is the kind of ambition the reef deserves.

Looking at our Plan to Deliver Net Zero: The Australian Way, we have drastically missed the mark. The plan, spearheaded by the coalition, unsurprisingly still relies on maintaining fossil fuel economies and subsiding new technology, for instance carbon capture and storage, rather than supporting adaptation, implementing new policies, or easing the transition to renewable energy.

Prior to COP26, warning by the UN stressed that current NDCs would not be sufficient in mitigating 1.5 degrees warming, let alone in preventing 2.7 degrees of warming.

Despite Australia’s blatant inaction, new long-term commitments in light of COP26 are now projected to bring warming to 1.9 degrees. This temperature doesn’t quite meet the “well below” criteria of the Paris Agreement, but it is a positive leap forward from catastrophic warming.

What exceeding 1.5 degrees means for the GBR

In order to keep 1.5 alive, COP26 needs to see NDCs and net zero commitments continue to be updated and enhanced. In pushing for a climate justice, developed countries need to be held accountable for their inaction, while developing countries need to be supported in their adaptation and transition towards climate resilience.

Although 1.9 degrees seems like a win, the reality is, the rates of GBR survival past the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 are grim. For the GBR, this 1.5 degrees means a 70-90 per cent loss of reef life, with 2 degrees of average warming meaning a 99 per cent decline of coral reef ecosystems.

The Great Barrier Reef, despite indecision is ‘in danger’ and without swift climate action, the outcome remains the same. Exceeding Paris Agreement targets for the GBR will mean a loss of life, of biodiversity, of meaning, livelihood, knowledge, identity, and culture. There is no “well below” 2 degrees for the reef, at 1.5 we lose it.

And so, the success or failure of COP26 places the reef in a critical zone swinging between living and dying. The COP21 Paris Agreement set 1.5 as the deadline, the question is can COP26 stop us before we “meet and beat” it.

Ella Vallelonga is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology & Development Studies at the University of Adelaide. Her research examines intersections between ecological loss, adaptation and social understandings of water, with attention to water-related conflict and human-reef relations. 

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