European Union official sounds alarm over threats to Great Barrier Reef

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A senior European Union official has sounded the alarm over the rapid decline of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef while backing calls for all countries to make more ambitious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU’s commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius, told Guardian Australia he was deeply concerned by the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef. “As long as we do not change our behaviours, things will not improve,” he said.

Sinkevicius hopes Australia will sign up to the 84-country Leaders’ Pledge for Nature – a document that calls for a “green and just” recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and stronger political will to act against the “crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and climate change”.

The leaders’ pledge backs the objective of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. That is a target the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said is his preference, but he has resisted making a formal commitment amid divisions within his government over climate policy.

Sinkevicius spoke to Guardian Australia after the EU joined the International Coral Reef Initiative, a grouping of countries and organisations that aims to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems. Australia was one of eight governments that co-founded the initiative in 1994.

“I am deeply concerned by the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef,” Sinkevicius said. “Perhaps no coral reef on the planet is better known, certainly here in Europe, than the Great Barrier Reef.”

Sinkevicius said coral reefs in general, and the Great Barrier Reef in particular, were “emblematic of rich marine life”.

“Yet the rapid degradation of these beautiful and essential underwater worlds is also a very stark reminder of the pressures that human activity is placing on our shared planet, not least our oceans,” he said.

“Coral reefs are under threat because of our activity as humans, our unsustainable ways of living, producing and consuming. As long as we do not change our behaviours, things will not improve. This is in our hands, and we must seize responsibility and rectify these negative impacts.”

The world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system but is under increasing pressure from climate heating that caused mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020. A government report card released in February found the marine environment along the coastline remained in poor health.

Asked whether concerns about the Great Barrier Reef should help motivate all countries to increase the level of ambition in their greenhouse gas reduction commitments, Sinkevicius said: “I would hope so.”

He said the European Commission’s European Green Deal included a pledge to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 – a goal he described as “ambitious, yet one that is absolutely necessary”.

Sinkevicius said he had been “happy to see its wider impact in engagements with partners around the world” and had been pleased to see that China and the US had set deadlines for net zero emissions – 2060 and 2050, respectively.

But he said it was “also important to acknowledge that our emissions have already had an impact on climate”.

“Such impact will continue for decades, even if global and European efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions prove effective. Hence substantial adaptation efforts are therefore still required. Our cooperation in the International Coral Reef Initiative and other fora will remain essential in this regard.”

Sinkevicius said the EU looked forward to close cooperation with Australia, currently a co-chair of the reef initiative.

He said the EU was already working with Australia on research initiatives, including providing at least EUR280m ($432m) over three years to a project led by the Institut de recherche pour le developpement in France.

The project, in partnership with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is examining the genetic response of corals to ocean warming.

Sinkevicius said the EU and Australia were “longstanding supporters of conserving the unique ecosystems and rich marine biodiversity of the Southern Ocean, including the reefs of cold-water corals and seamounts that form key habitats for an array of creatures found nowhere else on Earth”.

The commissioner called for an ambitious agreement on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), due to be held in October in the Chinese city of Kunming.

The EU is pressing for “ambitious, and where feasible, measurable and time-bound targets to effectively address the drivers of biodiversity loss”.

Sinkevicius said the EU was “striving for overarching objectives to galvanise support at the highest political level and among the wider public – similar to the 1.5C target for climate change”.

“We are at a turning point, and the upcoming COP15 must be the Paris moment for biodiversity,” he said.

He said the UN Biodiversity Summit held in September last year “was an important event to build momentum as well as to foster strategies to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic that are green and consistent with climate and biodiversity objectives”.

“The EU invites Australia to join the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature published in September 2020 and already endorsed by 84 countries,” he said, referring to a pledge whose supporters include Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

“In addition, the EU also invites Australia to join the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which is raising the global ambition to achieve at least 30% protection of land and oceans.”

The High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, whose members comprise 57 countries or blocs including the UK and France, calls for that goal of protecting at least 30% of world’s land and ocean to be achieved by 2030.

“Mobilising resources ahead of the COP15 will be of key importance and we also count on Australia to join international efforts to ensure adequate support to developing states,” Sinkevicius said.

Australia’s minister for emissions reduction, Angus Taylor, told an international event late on Wednesday that Australia was “firmly committed to getting to net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050”.

But, Taylor said, Canberra’s focus was “very much on the ‘how'” of such a transition. The minister pledged $1m towards a clean energy transitions program overseen by the International Energy Agency.

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