18 Mar 2022


The heartbreak of yet another significant coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef comes as new research shows Australia is set to “blow its emissions budget by more than double”.

Extensive heat damage to coral means Australia’s national treasure has now suffered substantial bleaching in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022.

“That’s four times since 2016. The Reef is now suffering widespread bleaching damage at the rate of more than once every two years,” said Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, Richard Leck.

“Coral bleaching is directly attributable to climate change caused by rising global emissions. Reducing Australia’s domestic and exported emissions fast, this decade, is the main solution within our control,” he said.

WWF-Australia has commissioned a new independent expert analysis from leading climate scientists to inform the Australian public and UNESCO of the latest climate science relevant to the Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage status.

That expert analysis reveals the extent to which Australia’s current approach to reducing emissions is deficient.

Climate science experts at Climate Resource found that between 2020 and the time Australia reaches net zero under the Federal government’s current plans, our domestic emissions will add up to 9.6 billion tonnes.

To have a chance of staying below 1.5°C, Australia’s domestic emissions should total only 4 billion tonnes.

“We’re going to blow our emissions budget by more than double,” said Mr Leck.

“The science is clear: the outlook for coral reefs around the world is bad at 1.5°C, and their fate is all but sealed at 2°C,” said Dr Zebedee Nicholls, Modelling and Data Co-Director of Climate Resource and Researcher at the University of Melbourne.

“There is a clear gap between the emissions reduction consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C and Australia’s emissions targets,” said Malte Meinshausen, Scientific Co-Director of Climate Resource and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

A fourth significant bleaching event in just six years is happening just as world heritage experts are due to arrive in Queensland to assess the Reef.

The World Heritage Committee decided to send the monitoring mission at its meeting last year when the Reef narrowly avoided being placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

In its decision, the Committee warned Australia “that accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement”.

“We expect the IUCN and UNESCO experts will be given an opportunity to witness firsthand what an underwater heat wave does to the Reef."

“It’s not too late for Australia to make changes that give the Reef the best chance of survival and avoids downgrading its World Heritage status."

“It’s our Reef; it’s our responsibility,” he said.

About the report’s authors:

A/Prof Malte Meinshausen is one of the lead authors of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6 Working Group I on Physical Climate Science) and also a core writing team member of the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report. A/Professor Meinshausen’s main research activity relates to carbon budgets, climate scenarios and the reduced-complexity model MAGICC. He founded the Climate & Energy College at the University of Melbourne and was its Director for the first five years, as well as Co-Director of the Energy Transition Hub. In his field of climate science, climate scenarios and remaining carbon budgets, Malte Meinshausen has been awarded a highly cited researcher status and also named number 45 of the world’s 1000 most influential climate scientists by Reuters.

Dr Zebedee Nicholls is a world-leading expert in reduced complexity climate model development. He is the only researcher to have contributed heavily to the development of both MAGICC and FaIR, the two reduced complexity climate models used for emissions scenario assessment in the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. As well as being a Lead Author of the Supplementary Material for Chapter 7 of Working Group 1 of the forthcoming IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, he was also a Contributing Author to Chapters 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of Working Group 1 and Chapter 3 and Annex III of the forthcoming Working Group 3 report.