Archives for posts with tag: Great Barrier Reef

The latest campaign by Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) maintains the group’s almost complete lack of interest in the massive contribution of animal agriculture to: (a) climate change; and (b) destruction of Great Barrier Reef corals.

The latest campaign

Title: “For the love of the reef

The campaign is being run in conjunction with an AYCC branch known as SEED, which describes itself as “Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network”.

Related campaign

Title: “The 3 degree challenge

While also focusing on the Great Barrier Reef, the page highlights the impact of increasing global temperature on the production of sugar, wheat and meat.

The idea

For the main “for the love of the reef” campaign, AYCC is asking participants to go without something they enjoy for around two weeks. They have specified coffee, chocolate or avocado, seemingly assuming that people like at least one of those items.

Participants ask others to donate funds in recognition of their sacrifice. The funds are intended to assist AYCC’s reef campaigns.

For a supposedly more difficult challenge (presumably involving higher donations), participants can take “the 3 degree challenge”, in which they go without all three of the specified products.

Some history

AYCC ran a similar campaign in early 2016, with the title “For the love of our future”. Like this year’s campaign, it was run in conjunction with the “3 degree challenge”. On the challenge website (like this year), AYCC bemoaned the impact of climate change on beef production, completely ignoring the massive impact of that industry on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.

In response to me highlighting the irony of their position, they added the words: “Going without meat for 2 weeks can also have a big impact in reducing your carbon footprint, as meat production contributes to global warming.”

Bizarrely, they retained the comment expressing concern over the impact of climate change on beef production.

I find it interesting that they seemed to assume that participants were regular meat eaters.

The current position

This year, AYCC has added another comment to its “3 degree challenge” page under the heading “A note on animal agriculture”. That note exemplifies AYCC’s failure to disclose critical information, as referred to below.

AYCC’s professed knowledge of animal agriculture’s impacts is limited to methane emissions

If I were to walk down the street and ask people to tell me what they knew about animal agriculture’s impact on global warming, most who responded may focus on one word: METHANE

That’s what AYCC has done on its “3 degree challenge” page.

Its only reference to livestock production’s negative impacts, in a campaign that addresses climate change and the destruction of corals, relates to methane, when the relevant factors are far more extensive than that single greenhouse gas.

That’s from a group whose reason for existence is to lead “solutions to the climate crisis”!

Such an approach is particularly concerning on a website focusing on the Great Barrier Reef, when many additional factors destroy corals or cause them to be less resilient than they would otherwise have been to the impacts of warming waters.

What is AYCC failing to disclose?

The issues have been covered extensively in articles on this site, including (in relation to land clearing and the reef) “Meat Eaters vs the Great Barrier Reef” and “Beef, the reef and rugby: We have a problem“. Here are some key points.

1.  Climate Change

Livestock’s climate change impacts arise from many inter-related factors, such as:

(a) its inherent inefficiency as a food source;

(b) the massive scale of the industry;

(c) resultant land clearing far beyond what would otherwise be required to satisfy our nutritional requirements;

(d) greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide; and

(e) other warming agents such as tropospheric ozone (derived from precursors such as volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide) and black carbon.

It is important to note that official figures under-report animal agriculture’s overall and proportional emissions because relevant factors are: (a) omitted entirely, e.g. tropospheric ozone; (b) classified under different headings, e.g. livestock-related land clearing reported within the category “land use, land use change and forestry” (LULUCF); and (c) considered but with conservative calculations, e.g. methane’s impact based on a 100-year, rather than 20-year, basis for determining its “global warming potential” (GWP).

As acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the choice of GWP time horizon is a value judgement. The shorter time horizon is critical in the context of climate change tipping points, beyond which we can lose any chance of influencing the climate system in a positive manner.

The land clearing is a double-edged sword, as it releases carbon in the form of CO2 from soil and vegetation, while reducing the biosphere’s ability to draw existing CO2 from the atmosphere.

In Queensland alone, livestock-related land clearing since 1988 (when detailed records began) has represented 91 per cent of total land clearing. It has equated to more than 11 million rugby fields at rates of 42 per hour overall and 50 per hour in 2015/16. For American readers, that equates to 17.5 million American football fields at rates of 71 per hour overall and 79 per hour in 2015/16. This chart shows the full record:

Here’s a short video from The Wilderness Society, showing land clearing on a northern Queensland cattle station in 2014 using two bulldozers connected by a huge chain. This widely-used method was introduced in the 1950s, with devastating consequences.

Reducing fossil fuel usage (which is AYCC’s focus) is an essential measure in our efforts to overcome climate change. However, even if we were to optimistically assume that global efforts in that regard will increase markedly from current levels, it would not be enough on its own.

Another double-edged sword in the battle against climate change can be found in the fact that reducing fossil fuel usage results in lower concentrations of atmospheric aerosols, the existence of which has a cooling effect (referred to as global dimming). In an effort to reduce the increase in temperature that would result from a reduction in aerosols, and to reduce temperatures from their present levels, we must draw down carbon as rapidly as possible through reforestation and other measures. We must also prevent further deforestation. We will not adequately address those issues without a general transition away from animals as a food source.

Methane and various other warming agents mentioned here have much shorter life spans than CO2. As a result, appropriate action will provide rapid benefits. That is critical in terms of global dimming and climate change tipping points. (AYCC’s “challenge” page fails dismally in relation to the timing issues.)

2. Great Barrier Reef

Like most climate change campaign groups that comment on the loss of coral reefs, AYCC focuses on the issue of coral bleaching caused by warming waters. Although that is a critical issue, other critical factors were affecting the reef’s corals decades before the first major bleaching event in 1998, and their destructive force continues.

They are tropical cyclones and predation by crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). As demonstrated in the following chart, 57 per cent of coral loss on the Great Barrier Reef had occurred by 1985, thirteen years before the first major bleaching event.

Dr Jon Brodie from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, has reported that COTS were likely to have been the main cause between 1960 and 1985.

Dr Glenn De’ath and colleagues from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Wollongong University have allocated causation between 1985 and 2012 as: cyclones 48 per cent; COTS 42 per cent; and bleaching 10%.

Like fossil fuel usage, animal agriculture contributes to warming waters and cyclone intensity through its significant global warming impact.

It also has other significant impacts on the reef.

Erosion caused by grazing on cleared and uncleared lands has released sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus to the reef’s waters via nearby streams and rivers. The sediment blocks the sun and smothers coral, making it less resilient than it would otherwise have been to the impacts of other stressors, such as warming waters.

The fertilisers promote the growth phytoplankton that are a food source for crown-of-thorns starfish larvae. Adult starfish eat nothing but coral, and have had a devastating impact. They were doing so decades before the first coral bleaching event in 1998, and the destruction is continuing.

The Queensland government’s 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement reported that livestock grazing was responsible for 75 per cent of sediment, 54 per cent of phosphorus and 40 per cent of nitrogen in the Great Barrier Reef’s waters.

Here’s an example of gully erosion initiated by cattle grazing on a property in northern Queensland.

© Griffith University – Andrew Brooks

Conclusion

AYCC and other climate change campaign groups are wasting their time if they ignore the impacts of animal agriculture on the climate and the Great Barrier Reef.

We face an emergency in respect of each issue, with action on animal agriculture representing a relatively fast, low-cost means of helping us to reach critical targets.

It must be included in our efforts if we are to have any chance of overcoming the climate crisis and saving natural wonders such as the reef.

Author

Paul Mahony

Sources

Australian Youth Climate Coalition, “For the love of the reef”, https://fortheloveof.org.au/

Australian Youth Climate Coalition, “3 Degree Challenge”, https://fortheloveof.org.au/page/3-degree-challenge

Myhre, G., Shindell, D., Bréon, F.-M., Collins, W., Fuglestvedt, J., Huang, J., Koch, D., Lamarque, J.-F., Lee, D., Mendoza, B., Nakajima, T., Robock, A., Stephens, G., Takemura, T., and Zhang, H., 2013: “Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” , pp. 711-712 [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

Brodie, J., “Great Barrier Reef dying beneath its crown of thorns”, The Conversation, 16th April, 2012, http://theconversation.com/great-barrier-reef-dying-beneath-its-crown-of-thorns-6383

De’ath, G., Katharina Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., Puotinen, M., “The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes”, PNAS 2012 109 (44) 17995-17999; published ahead of print October 1, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109, http://www.pnas.org/citmgr?gca=pnas%3B109%2F44%2F17995

Stella, J., Pears, R., Wachenfeld, D., “Interim Report: 2016 Coral Bleaching Event on the Great Barrier Reef”, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, September 2016, http://elibrary.gbrmpa.gov.au/jspui/bitstream/11017/3044/5/Interim%20report%20on%202016%20coral%20bleaching%20event%20in%20GBRMP.pdf

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef Health, 29 May 2017, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/media-room/reef-health

Professor Terry Hughes on Twitter, 21st May 2017

Kroon, F., Turner, R., Smith, R., Warne, M., Hunter, H., Bartley, R., Wilkinson, S., Lewis, S., Waters, D., Caroll, C., 2013 “Scientific Consensus Statement: Sources of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment”, Ch. 4, p. 12, The State of Queensland, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, July, 2013, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/sources-of-pollutants.aspx

Images

Wonderful and beautiful underwater world with corals and tropical fish © Brian Kinney | Shutterstock

Football Field © Lucadp | Dreamstime.com

Cow flat icon © RaulAlmu | Shutterstock | ID: 516517108

Gully Erosion © Andrew Brooks, Griffith University

Video

The Wilderness Society | Land Clearing, Olive Vale, Qld, 2014 | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uc06o7ayx-g

The City of Darebin (pronounced Darr-e-bin) encompasses various suburbs to the north of Melbourne, from Northcote to Bundoora and from Coburg to Alphington. It recently invited community feedback to its draft climate emergency plan for the period 2017-2022.

If you are interested in seeing my response, it can be accessed by clicking the image below. This version contains a supplement with additional comments on pig meat, poultry, fish, egg and dairy products.

The city’s draft plan covered the following topics:

  1. Climate Emergency mobilisation and leadership
  2. Energy efficiency
  3. Renewable energy and fuel switching
  4. Zero emissions transport
  5. Waste minimisation
  6. Fossil fuel divestment
  7. Adaptation and resilience
  8. Engaging the community
  9. Darebin Energy Foundation

A glaring omission from my point of view was the issue of food choices.

I covered the following issues in my response:

  1. Food-related emissions
  2. Land clearing
  3. The Great Barrier Reef
  4. Links between climate change and the consumption of sea animals
  5. Health and nutrition
  6. Social justice
  7. Engaging with the community and advocating to state and federal governments

In relation to food-related emissions, my submission included the latest emissions intensity estimates for beef from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Figure 1 below compares the beef figures to those for aluminium (regarded as extremely emissions intensive and at one stage responsible for 16 per cent of Australia’s electricity consumption with a lower tonnage than beef production) and soy beans (as reported by researchers from Oxford University). [1] [2] [3] [4]

The figures have been updated from estimates the FAO published in 2013, which utilised a 2005 reference period and an earlier version of its Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM 1.0). [5]

The FAO’s latest reference period is 2010, using its updated model, GLEAM 2.0.

It used the IPCC’s 2013 100-year global warming potentials (GWPs), and I have calculated 20-year GWPs for the chart, using IPCC estimates and the FAO’s apportionment of the various greenhouse gases for each product. (The IPCC’s 20-year GWPs are more conservative than estimates from NASA researchers, who have allowed for aerosol interactions.) [6]

Figure 1: Emissions intensity of various products based on product weight (2010 reference period for animal-based products) [Footnote]

A pleasing aspect of responding to the city’s plan was pointing out that some high-profile, mainstream climate scientists have stressed the need to address the issue of animal-based food consumption. Here are some relevant extracts:

EXTRACT 1:

“In a 2013 paper, [James] Hansen and co-authors argued that it was feasible to draw down 100 gigatonnes of carbon through reforestation between 2031 and 2080. They noted: (a) because of extensive deforestation in earlier decades, there is a large amount of land suitable for reforestation; and (b) although reforestation competes with agricultural land use; land needs could decline by reducing use of animal products, as livestock now consume more than half of all crops.” [7]

EXTRACT 2:

“[Hansen, et al.] estimated a maximum sequestration potential of 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon per year through reforestation. With a conversion factor of 3.67, the estimate equates to around 5.9 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.

That exceeds the annual drawdown target of 5 gigatonnes of CO2 established in a “carbon law” articulated by a group of leading climate scientists in early 2017, which they indicated would provide a 50 per cent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2100 and a 66 per cent chance of limiting it to 2°C.

The authors (Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Joeri Rogelj, Malte Meinshausen, Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber) stated:

‘Agro-industries, farms, and civil society should develop a worldwide strategy for sustainable food systems to drive healthier, low-meat diets and reduce food waste.'” [8]

Another important aspect of the exercise is that the City of Darebin intends to actively engage with state and federal governments in relation to its aims. It has said, “a key part of our program is to take action to accelerate the process of getting these governments to declare a climate emergency and commit to programs of the necessary scope, scale and speed”.

Such action will provide additional leverage for the plan, including any feedback incorporated in the final version.

Conclusion

With no time to waste if we are to have any chance of overcoming the climate crisis, it is imperative that we use all tools at our disposal in our efforts to do so. The issue of food consumption and production offers one such tool, with some elements providing rapid benefits that would increase our chances of avoiding tipping points and runaway climate change.

I trust the City of Darebin includes the issue in the final version of its emergency plan, ultimately improving our ability to respond to the existential threat of climate change.

Author

Paul Mahony

Footnote

The chart appeared as Figure 2 in the submission.

References

[1]      UNFAO email correspondence of 21st April, 2nd May and 27th June 2017

[2]      Australian Aluminium Council Ltd, “Climate Change: Aluminium Smelting Greenhouse Performance”, http://aluminium.org.au/climate-change/smelting-greenhouse-performance

[3]     Hamilton, C, “Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change”, (2007) Black Inc Agenda, p. 40

[4]     Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A.D.M., Travis, R.C., Bradbury, K.E., & Key, T.J., “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK”, Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1

[5]      Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G., 2013, “Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Table 5, p. 24, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm ; http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e.pdf

[6]      Shindell, D.T.; Faluvegi, G.; Koch, D.M.; Schmidt, G.A.; Unger, N.; Bauer, S.E. “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science, 30 October 2009; Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718; DOI: 10.1126/science.1174760, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only

[7]      Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, Beerling DJ, et al. (2013) Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81648. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

[8]      Rockström, J., O. Gaffney. J. Rogelj, M. Meinshausen, N. Nakicenovic, and H.J. Schellnhuber (2017) “A roadmap for rapid decarbonization”, Science 355: 1269-127, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6331/1269.full and http://www.rescuethatfrog.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Rockstrom-et-al-2017.pdf cited in Dunlop, I. and Spratt, D., “Disaster Alley: Climate Change Conflict and Risk, June 2017, https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au/disasteralley

Main image

Henry Patton | Active moulin | Flickr | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It appears we may be witnessing the tragic demise of one of the world’s natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The process has justifiably been covered extensively by media outlets around the world, with much of the coverage focusing on coral bleaching, primarily caused by warming seas. However, has that been the main cause of coral loss?

It may surprise some to find that, until the past two years at least, the answer had been a resounding “no”. This article comments on the other causes. It also asks why environmental groups who campaign vigorously against the use of fossil fuels have said nothing meaningful about those other factors.

A major contributing factor has been erosion from livestock grazing (including related tree clearing), which releases sediment and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) to the GBR waters via nearby streams and rivers. The sediment inhibits coral growth and promotes the excessive development of algae, while the nutrients contribute to outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which have had a devastating impact.

Before considering those issues in detail, let’s look at the extent to which live coral cover on the reef has declined.

EXTENT OF LIVE CORAL COVER

Let’s take the 1960s as the baseline period. Professor Jon Brodie from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University has reported that coral covered around 50 per cent of the reef at that time, compared to around 16 per cent in 2012. [1] The change represented a decline in coral extent of 68 per cent.

Estimates vary, and soon after Professor Brodie’s figure was published, Dr Glenn De’ath and fellow researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the University of Wollongong estimated that the extent of coral cover around the same time was only 13.8 per cent, representing a decline of 72.4 per cent (again assuming 50 per cent as the base coverage extent). [2]

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has estimated a minimum figure of 17 per cent, followed by some recovery between 2012 and 2015, with an increase to 20 per cent. [3] On that basis, the decline from the 1960’s to 2012 (assuming that was the minimum) would have been 66 per cent, and to 2015, 60 per cent.

Two mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, along with other factors as referred to below, have caused further declines in live coral cover. In mid-2016, the GBRMPA’s interim assessment of the 2016 bleaching event indicated that 22 per cent of coral had died. It has since increased the estimate to 29 per cent. [4]

Although the latter figure related to shallow water corals, the authority  has said:

“Coral bleaching did extend to deeper corals beyond depths divers typically survey to, but mortality cannot be systematically assessed. . . . In 2017, further coral loss is expected from the second consecutive year of bleaching and the impacts of tropical cyclone Debbie. . . . A complete picture for 2017 won’t be available until early next year.”

Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, indicated on 21st May 2017 that the figure for 2017 is 19 per cent. [5] [Footnote 1]

If we assume that the figure of 29 per cent for 2016 applied to all GBR corals, and that the figure of 19 per cent for 2017 will be confirmed, the current extent of live coral cover (before allowing for declines caused by other factors over the past two years) would be around 11.5 per cent.

It seems reasonable to assume that estimates of percentage reductions are based on the extent of coverage that existed at the beginning of the period being assessed. If so, they are calculated on what has generally been a declining base.

On that basis, the decline from bleaching in 2016 and 2017 (to date) would equate to 17 per cent of the 1960s coverage, which is far less than indicated in much of the relevant media coverage, which indicated that around half had been lost. [6] The figures are represented in Figure 1. [Footnote 2]

The total reduction for the period from the 1960s to 2017, as represented here, is 77 per cent, with coverage of 11.5 per cent (2017) as a proportion of 50 per cent (1960s) being 23 per cent. [See update of 9 July 2017 below, along with more details on the causes in the following sections.]

Figure 1(a): Percentage of Coral Cover 1960s – 2017 (updated 25 July 2017)

Figure 1(b): Pre and Post 1985 Coral Loss (added 25 July 2017)

Coral-loss-pie-chart-terrastendo

Ominous warnings have been issued in the recent past, including the following comment from AIMS and University of Wollongong researchers in 2012, as referred to earlier:

” . . . coral cover on the GBR is consistently declining, and without intervention, it will likely fall to 5–10 per cent within the next 10 years.”

 

CAUSES OF CORAL DECLINE

In researching the causes of coral decline between 1985 and 2012, Dr Glenn De’ath and his co-authors (referred to earlier) assessed the relative contributions of tropical cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) and coral bleaching. Their results are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Causes of GBR coral decline 1985 – 2012

In a profound indication of the relative impact of COTS predation, the researchers estimated that there would have been a net increase in average coral cover if such predation had not occurred, rather than their estimated reduction of 50.7 per cent.

Findings from Kate Osborne and fellow AIMS researchers in 2011 indicated there was no overall loss for the period 1995-2009, with loss in some areas and species offset by expansion in others. [7] However, in respect of those corals that did decline, they reported COTS as the major cause at 36.7 per cent compared to cyclones at 33.8 per cent, disease at 6.5 per cent, bleaching at 5.6 per cent, with the remainder comprising multiple or unknown causes.

Jon Brodie reported in 2012 that COTS were probably the major cause of coral mortality in the period from 1960 to 1985, but pointed out that available data for the period was incomplete. [8]

Water quality has also been a major factor, as it affects the frequency of COTS outbreaks in the central and southern GBR.

CORAL BLEACHING

Many types of coral have a symbiotic relationship with marine algae known as zooxanthellae that live inside their tissue. The zooxanthellae are efficient food producers that provide up to 90 per cent of the energy corals require to grow and reproduce. They also give coral much of its colour. [9] [10]

When the relationship becomes stressed due to factors such as ocean temperature or pollution, the zooxanthellae leave the coral’s tissue. Without the zooxanthellae, the tissue of the coral animal appears transparent and its bright white skeleton is revealed.

Without the zooxanthellae as a food source, corals generally begin to starve.

If conditions return to normal, corals can regain their zooxanthellae, return to their normal colour and survive. However, this stress is likely to cause decreased coral growth and reproduction, and increased susceptibility to disease. Bleached corals often die if the stress persists.

Rising sea temperature is the main cause of coral bleaching. Other stressors can also contribute to it but generally to a smaller extent. They include: tropical cyclones; freshwater inflows from flooding events (with low salinity); sedimentation; pollution from urban or agricultural run-off; over-exposure to sunlight; and disease. [11] [12]

Major bleaching events have occurred on the GBR in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017.

Reefs can often recover from such events if given enough time, but two in quick succession in 2016 and 2017 may have caused permanent loss of large sections of the reef. The images in Figure 3, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, highlight the degree of impact of those two events.

Figure 3: Coral Bleaching Events 2016 and 2017

There is no doubt that coral bleaching is a critical, perhaps catastrophic, issue. Although De’ath et. al. highlighted the need to improve water quality and develop relevant control measures, they stressed that such measures would only succeed if climatic conditions were stabilised, as losses from bleaching and cyclones will otherwise increase.

As a result, given the lack of meaningful response from so-called world leaders to the climate change threat, and taking into account the impact of other stressors that have destroyed much of the reef and weakened the resilience of much of the remaining coral, we may have lost the opportunity to save the reef. [13]

CROWN-OF-THORNS STARFISH (COTS)

COTS are marine invertebrates that occur naturally on reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific region, feeding exclusively on coral. Certain conditions enable them to reach plague proportions and devastate hard coral communities.

Figure 4: Crown-of-thorns starfish devouring coral off northern Queensland

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), Lizard Island

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), Lizard Island (Ryan McMinds, Flickr)

 

The long-term monitoring program conducted by AIMS has shown that outbreaks have begun in the north and migrated southward, generally over periods of around 15 years, with ocean currents transporting larvae between reefs. There have been four major outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef since the 1960s: in that decade itself; the late 1970s; the early 1990s; and 2010 (which is still under way). [14]

De’ath et. al. have reported that COTS were likely to have occurred every 50-80 years before European agricultural nutrient runoff commenced.

Healthy reefs generally recover between outbreaks, taking 10 to 20 years to do so. However, recovery takes longer on reefs that are affected by additional stresses, such as coral bleaching, cyclones or poor water quality, so the coral may not fully recover before the next wave of outbreaks occurs. [15]

Jon Brodie has stated “it is now well established” that the major COTS outbreaks since 1962 were most likely caused by nutrient enrichment associated with increased discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus from the land due to soil erosion and large scale fertiliser use. The nutrients promote phytoplankton growth suitable to COTS larvae. [16]

The impact of livestock production within the reef’s catchment area is particularly relevant to the water quality issue (including sediment and nutrient discharge), as referred to later in this article.

Fishing also appears to be a major factor in relation to COTS outbreaks. In the mid-shelf region of the GBR, where most outbreaks occur, the frequency of outbreaks as of 2008 on reefs that were open to fishing had been 3.75 times higher than on those where it was prohibited. Although exploited fish species are unlikely to prey on COTS directly, changes in interactions between species at different positions in the food web may be the cause. [17]

These short videos from AIMS and Stanford University help us to better appreciate the extent of the COTS problem. The Stanford researchers state (with my underline):

“Low numbers of this starfish increase reef diversity, but large numbers can destroy reefs. Avoiding human activities that increase starfish numbers is more effective than trying to control Crown-of-Thorns outbreaks once they happen.”

Video 1: Australian Institute of Marine Science (Duration 1:23):

Video 2: Standford University (Duration 2:29)

Figure 5 shows the location, severity and areal extent of COTS outbreaks between 1982 and 2015. [18]

Figure 5: COTS outbreaks 1982 – 2015 (Animation)

THE IMPACT OF LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION

AIMS has highlighted the fact that deterioration in coastal water quality has negatively affected the function, productivity and resilience of tropical marine ecosystems.

They have reported that the main coastal and marine water quality issues in northern Australia are: (a) increasing sediment, nutrients and contaminants entering coastal waters in runoff from agricultural, industrial and urban land uses (increasing five to nine fold from pre-European settlement); and (b) rising seawater temperatures and increasing seawater acidity associated with climate change. [19]

Livestock production within the reef’s catchment has been a major factor in the release of sediment and nutrients. Eroded material, including nutrients, enters streams and rivers and is then carried to the coast, and from there to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Queensland Government’s 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement confirmed that grazing landscapes, primarily in the Fitzroy and Burdekin catchments, were responsible for 75 per cent of sediment, 54 per cent of phosphorous and 40 per cent of nitrogen in the reef’s waters. [20]

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has expressed its concern: [21]

“Most sediment entering the Great Barrier Reef comes from catchments in major pastoral areas such as the Burdekin, Herbert and Fitzroy rivers.”

“Changes in water quality affect the biodiversity and resilience of Reef systems. Higher concentrations of pollutants, such as suspended sediments, nitrogen and phosphorus, indicated by higher levels of chlorophyll and lower water clarity, leader [sic] to more algae and less coral diversity. In these conditions, algae take over and reduce the chances for new hard corals to establish and grow.”

Queensland has been Australia’s main beef production state since around 1885. [22] Trees have been extensively cleared to establish grazing areas, with the level of activity increasing after World War 2 when the technique of dragging a massive chain, linked to two bulldozers, was introduced. (The Wilderness Society has credited the innovation to a young Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who eventually became Queensland’s longest-serving premier.)

For many decades, farmers were required to clear the land as a condition of their government lease, with economic development being the driver. [23]

The Queensland government’s State Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) has shown that, between 1988 and 2015, 90,340 square kilometres of land were cleared or re-cleared for pasture in Queensland, which is equivalent to nearly 11 million rugby fields (or nearly 17 million American football fields), with the process accelerating in recent years after a partial ban on broadscale clearing was lifted in 2013. [24] [25] [Footnote 3]

It is also equivalent to a tract of land 10 kilometres (6 miles) wide running between Melbourne and Cairns nearly four times!

Figure 6: Livestock-related land clearing in Queensland 1988-2015 expressed as 10 km-wide tracts of land equivalent on Australian continent (Arrow width not to scale)

For more context, it is also equivalent to a 10 kilometre wide tract of land running 2.3 times between Los Angeles and New York.

Figure 7: Livestock-related land clearing in Queensland 1988-2015 expressed as 10 km-wide tracts of land equivalent on contiguous states of USA (Arrow width not to scale)

A deleterious outcome of livestock-related land clearing and livestock grazing in cleared and uncleared areas is gully erosion.

The Victorian government has highlighted the role of those activities in gully erosion generally (with my underline): [26]

“Under natural conditions, run-off is moderated by vegetation which generally holds the soil together, protecting it from excessive run-off and direct rainfall.

Excessive clearing, inappropriate land use and compaction of the soil caused by grazing often means the soil is left exposed and unable to absorb excess water. Surface run-off then increases and concentrates in drainage lines, allowing gully erosion to develop in susceptible areas.”

Soils with dispersible subsoils are very common in Queensland and are vulnerable to gully erosion when the shallow layer of relatively stable top soil is disturbed. As water penetrates through early-stage erosion (referred to as rill erosion up to 30 centimetres deep), the subsoil is dispersed, leaving the topsoil unsupported. The topsoil then collapses and the process is repeated.

From that stage, even with little or no surface flow, the gully walls can become saturated, causing them to slump and the gully to expand. The Queensland government has likened the process at that point to digging a hole to the depth of the water table at the beach, with the hole expanding as the sides slump away. [27]

The underlying rock will often limit gully depth to around two metres, but they can be as deep as fifteen metres in alluvial and colluvial soils.

Figure 8: Gully erosion on cattle property in northern Queensland

gully_erosion

© Griffith University – Andrew Brooks

 

The following video provides several examples of grazing-related gully erosion in Queensland’s Fitzroy Basin, which has caused massive amounts of sediment to flow to the GBR. Mitigation efforts are highlighted, but to a large extent the damage has been done and is continuing in other areas, with potential to expand elsewhere as more land is cleared for cattle.

The Queensland government’s most recent Reef Water Quality Protection Plan report card scored graziers’ response to the calamity a “D” for “poor”. [28]

In any event, it is estimated that expenditure ranging from $5.3 billion to $18.4 billion (most likely $7.8 billion) would be required to reduce sediment flow by 50 per cent, which is a target established under the Australian and Queensland governments’ Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan. [29]

Video 3: Gully erosion in the Fitzroy Basin (Duration 11.55)

Stream bank erosion has also significantly increased sediment discharge to the reef. Here are some thoughts from the Queensland government on that issue (with my underline): [30]

“The major cause of stream bank erosion is the destruction of vegetation on river banks (generally by clearing, overgrazing, cultivation, vehicle traffic up and down banks or fire) and the removal of sand and gravel from the stream bed.”

In commenting on the need to improve water quality, journalist Calla Walqhuist recently indicated in The Guardian that Jon Brodie had recommended a shift from sugar cane production in the reef’s catchment to cattle grazing. [31]

She neglected to say that it is only in the areas where sugarcane is grown that beef grazing would have little impact. Erosion is low in those areas due to high rainfall and extensive vegetation cover, with minimal use of fertilisers and pesticides. Cattle grazing on the large, low rangelands in the Burdekin and Fitzroy catchments, with variable rainfall, is responsible for greatly increased erosion and sediment delivery to the GBR. [32]

Professor Brodie has previously reported that cattle grazing for beef production is the largest single land use in the reef’s catchment area, with cropping (mainly of sugarcane) and urban/residential development “considerably less in areal extent”. [33] As a result, the scope for transitioning from sugarcane production to cattle grazing may be limited.

KEY ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS EFFECTIVELY IGNORE THE LIVESTOCK ISSUE

The following slideshow includes: Adam Bandt of The Greens political party; Kirsty Albion of Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC); Paul Sinclair of Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF); Charlie Wood of 350.org; and Tim Flannery of Climate Council Australia. [Footnote 4]

What do these people have in common?

 

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One answer is that their organisations have all campaigned to save the Great Barrier Reef from the ravages of climate change and the related activities of coal mining, dredging and shipping, but have ignored or understated: (a) livestock production’s direct reef impacts; and/or (b) livestock production’s climate change impacts. The Greens’ statement on protecting the reef is an example. [34]

To the extent the groups have mentioned COTS outbreaks and water quality issues, they appear to have avoided commenting on the contribution of diet, which is ultimately responsible for livestock production within the reef’s catchment.

How can they and their organisations justify their assumed roles as defenders of the environment, while effectively choosing to ignore such a critical contributor to the ongoing environmental catastrophe?

It is ironic that Tim Flannery implores us to “start talking about the reef”, including around the dinner table, but fails to meaningfully highlight the role of diet in its demise. [35]

I have previously highlighted links between the livestock sector and ACF, AYCC, Climate Council Australia and others. The links include the fact that ACF’s high-tech headquarters in inner Melbourne, in which AYCC and a Greens member of the Victorian parliament are tenants, were donated to it by livestock interests. [36] I am not in a position to comment on the links (details of which are publicly available), other than to say they exist.

Other scientists are ahead of the pack on this issue, leaving Flannery and his Climate Council colleagues in their wake.

Professor Terry Hughes (referred to earlier) and co-authors of a paper that appeared in the June 2017 issue of Nature, have pointed out that scientists have often ignored human behaviour as the ultimate driver of environmental change. [37] For example, they may focus on pollution or climate change, without acknowledging that factors such as human population growth, socio-economic development, and culture and values are the ultimate cause.

Hughes and his co-authors have argued that governments, non-government organisations and social movements “can actively encourage changes in social norms that lead to improved environmental behaviours” through the use of taxes, incentives, subsidies, education and communication. Governments and the groups mentioned here are failing miserably in that regard.

In Australia, criticising the traditional meat-based barbecue may be considered a form of heresy, despite meat consumption being a key factor in the destruction of a global treasure and critical economic asset in the form of the GBR. Indeed, even without climate change, the reef’s demise may have been assured due to decades of relentless sediment and nutrient pollution from grazing and other properties within the reef’s catchment.

Using the phrase “death by a thousand cuts”, the authors also highlighted the need to consider the interaction between multiple factors contributing to the deterioration of coral reefs. They referred to models indicating that “synergistic human impacts can reduce resilience and cause unexpected ecological collapse, even when individual drivers or stressors remain at levels that are considered to be safe”.

Even if we focus solely on climate change, the livestock sector is a key driver. For example, researchers from the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne and climate change advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) have estimated that the livestock sector is responsible for around fifty per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. [38] The findings were reinforced in a subsequent peer-reviewed journal article, which had two co-authors in common with the BZE paper. [39]

The authors focused on factors that are ignored, under-stated or attributed to non-livestock categories in the national greenhouse gas inventory.

BEEF vs TOURISM

Two-thirds of Australia’s beef was exported in 2012-2013, with the figure likely to have grown since then due to an expansion of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).  [40] [41] As a result, modification of diet by the nation’s residents will not be enough to adequately reduce beef production’s negative impacts.

At present, the environmental cost of beef production is not adequately allowed for in the price paid by the end user. Consequently, beef producers are effectively subsidised, while consumers in Australia, China and elsewhere are paying artificially low prices with no effective price signal encouraging them to purchase products with less environmental impact.

The words of CSIRO researcher, Dr Barney Foran, come to mind: [42]

“We should be paying more for products that have a high environmental account balance. The consumer should be expected to pay a realistic price for food so that we play a part in fixing up the bush, instead of sitting in town and wringing our hands about it.”

The current, low-price arrangements may soon come at the expense of the tourism industry as the GBR deteriorates further. In Queensland alone, the industry generates revenues of nearly $23 billion and supports nearly 220,000 jobs directly and indirectly. With 42 per cent of international visitors ranking the reef as the most appealing tourist attraction in Australia, it is also a significant factor in the tourism industry nationally, for which the corresponding figures are $98 billion and 922,000. [43] [44] [45]

By comparison, the beef industry generated less than $18 billion in revenues nationally in 2015/16 (less than tourism in Queensland alone), including $10 billion of exports, with 200,000 people employed (also less than tourism in Queensland), including on-farm production, processing and retail. [46]

CONCLUSION

To the extent that we have any chance of saving the Great Barrier Reef, it is critical that prominent individuals and groups campaigning for that purpose communicate honestly about the factors that are contributing to its parlous state. If it is too late to save it, then we must ask how and why those individuals and groups have failed to address key issues.

It may be easy to feign concern and diligence while conveniently overlooking essential contributing factors, but such abrogation of responsibility will undoubtedly result in catastrophic outcomes unless others can successfully convey the truth to the point that meaningful action is taken.

With that aim in mind, I hope you will help to inform others of the message conveyed in this article.

Author

Paul Mahony

Footnotes

  1. Professor Hughes also indicated a figure of 30 per cent for 2016. I have assumed he was rounding up the official figure of 29 per cent, and I have used the latter.
  2. A reduction in areal extent from 20 per cent to 14.2 per cent represents a reduction of 5.8 percentage points, and from 14.2 per cent to 11.5 per cent a further 2.7 percentage points, i.e. a total of 8.5 percentage points for those two years. The reduction of 8.5 per cent represents 17 per cent of the 1960s coverage, which was 50 per cent of the reef.
    Due to their close proximity in terms of timing, it is possible that the 2016 and 2017 declines were both expressed as a percentage of the 2015 areal extent. That approach would accentuate the reduction, leaving 10.4 per cent in 2017 rather than the figure of 11.5 per cent indicated here, and the pre-1985 reduction being 54 per cent rather than 57 per cent. The figures will be amended if my assumptions are found to be incorrect. Either way, they would appear to represent reasonable approximations.
    On the other hand, media outlets have reported that half the coral has been lost in the past two years. Clearly, a 50 per cent reduction using the 1960s base figure would not be possible when around 80 per cent of that base figure had already been lost by 2015.
  3. The area represents original clearing and re-clearing, demonstrating the ability of wooded vegetation to regenerate if given the opportunity.
  4. All photos in the slideshow, other than Tim Flannery’s, are from the “Reef not coal snap action”, held in Melbourne on 5th December, 2016, and arranged by ACF, AYCC and 350.org. Tim Flannery’s image is from a video recorded on the reef, where he spoke solely about climate change.

Updates

9 July 2017:

The GBRMPA has reported that, in addition to bleaching, corals during 2017 have been affected by: (a) tropical cyclone Debbie (late March 2017); (b) subsequent flooding of the Burdekin and Fitzroy Rivers and resultant flood plumes; (c) ongoing outbreaks of coral disease; and (d) crown-of-thorns starfish. [47] Those factors may have resulted in current coral coverage being below 11.5 per cent. Animal agriculture is relevant to each, including: (i) the flood plumes resulting from eroded soils in the Burekin and Fitzroy catchments; and (ii) tropical cyclones which are affected by the sector’s global warming impact.

Even if we attributed all the coral loss in 2016 and 2017 to bleaching (which was not the case), its contribution since the 1960s is likely to have been well below that of cyclones and COTS.

As mentioned within the article, Jon Brodie of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies believes COTS were probably the major cause of coral mortality in the period from 1960 to 1985. A major COTS outbreak occurred in the 1960s, while the first major bleaching event occurred in 1998, so bleaching may have had no impact during that period.

5 August 2017:

One paragraph has been amended to clarify the fact that erosion from cattle grazing occurs on uncleared, as well as cleared, land (consistent with many of my previous articles).

References

[1] Brodie, J., “Great Barrier Reef dying beneath its crown of thorns”, The Conversation, 16th April, 2012, http://theconversation.com/great-barrier-reef-dying-beneath-its-crown-of-thorns-6383

[2] De’ath, G., Katharina Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., Puotinen, M., “The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes”, PNAS 2012 109 (44) 17995-17999; published ahead of print October 1, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109, http://www.pnas.org/citmgr?gca=pnas%3B109%2F44%2F17995

[3] Stella, J., Pears, R., Wachenfeld, D., “Interim Report: 2016 Coral Bleaching Event on the Great Barrier Reef”, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, September 2016, http://elibrary.gbrmpa.gov.au/jspui/bitstream/11017/3044/5/Interim%20report%20on%202016%20coral%20bleaching%20event%20in%20GBRMP.pdf

[4] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef Health, 29 May 2017, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/media-room/latest-news/coral-bleaching/2017/significant-coral-decline-and-habitat-loss-on-the-great-barrier-reef

[5] Professor Terry Hughes on Twitter, 20th and 21st May 2017, https://twitter.com/ProfTerryHughes/status/866155996078522368

[6] Chang, C. and AAP, “Half the Great Barrier Reef may have died in last two years”, 23 May 2017, http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/climate-change/half-the-great-barrier-reef-may-have-died-in-last-two-years/news-story/d1a7e2974597f40d04700d7313c9f713

[7] Osborne, K., Dolman, A. M., Burgess, S. C., & Johns, K. A. (2011). Disturbance and the Dynamics of Coral Cover on the Great Barrier Reef (1995–2009). PLoS ONE, 6(3), e17516. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017516https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3053361/ and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3053361/pdf/pone.0017516.pdf

[8] Brodie, J., op. cit.

[9] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, “What is coral bleaching?”, revised 17 March 2016, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_bleach.html

[10] Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Managing the reef – Coral bleaching” (undated), http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/threats-to-the-reef/climate-change/what-does-this-mean-for-species/corals/what-is-coral-bleaching

[11] Australian Government, Bureau of Meteorology (undated), http://www.bom.gov.au/oceanography/oceantemp/GBR_Coral.shtml

[12] The Nature Conservancy, Ocean and Coasts, “Coral bleaching: What you need to know” (undated), https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/coralreefs/coral-reefs-coral-bleaching-what-you-need-to-know.xml

[13] Dunlop, I., “Time for honesty on climate and energy policy”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/time-for-honesty-on-climate-and-energy-policy-20161208-gt7g1k.html

[14] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “History of crown-of-thorns outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef”, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/animals/crown-of-thorns-starfish/history-of-outbreaks (accessed 11 June 2017)

[15] Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Crown-of-thorns starfish” (undated), http://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/biodiversity-ecology/threats/cots.html (accessed 11 June 2017)

[16] Brodie, J., op. cit.

[17] Sweatman, H., “No-take reserves protect coral reefs from predatory starfish”, Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 14, pR598–R599, 22 July 2008, http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(08)00671-4 and http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(08)00671-4.pdf

[18] Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Crown-of-Thorns Starfish distribution” (undated), http://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/biodiversity-ecology/threats/cots-animation.html (Accessed 11 June 2017)

[19] Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Water Quality” (undated), http://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/water-quality/water-quality.html

[20] Kroon, F., Turner, R., Smith, R., Warne, M., Hunter, H., Bartley, R., Wilkinson, S., Lewis, S., Waters, D., Caroll, C., 2013 “Scientific Consensus Statement: Sources of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment”, Ch. 4, p. 12, The State of Queensland, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, July, 2013, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/sources-of-pollutants.aspx

[21] Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Managing the reef”, undated, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/threats-to-the-reef/declining-water-quality

[22] May, D., “The North Queensland beef cattle industry: an historical overview“, from Lectures on North Queensland history. No. 4 chapter 6 pp. 121-159, Edited by Dalton, B. J.. Townsville. James Cook University of North Queensland, 1984, http://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/chapter/9b938237e189a1274770d0d2e94209ad

[23] The Wilderness Society, “Land Clearing in Queensland” (undated) https://www.wilderness.org.au/land-clearing-queensland (Accessed 12 June 2017)

[24] Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation. 2016. Land cover change in Queensland 2014–15: a Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) report. DSITI, Brisbane

[25] Mahony, P., “Beef, the reef and rugby: We have a problem”, Terrastendo, 26 March 2017, https://terrastendo.net/2017/03/26/beef-the-reef-and-rugby-we-have-a-problem/

[26] Agriculture Victoria, “Gully Erosion”, Nov 1999, http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/agriculture/farm-management/soil-and-water/erosion/gully-erosion (Accessed 13 June 2017)

[27] Carey, B., Queensland Government, Natural Resources and Water, “Gully Erosion”, March 2006, https://www.qld.gov.au/dsiti/assets/soil/gully-erosion.pdf

[28] Queensland Government, “Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015: Reef water quality protection plan”, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/2015/ and http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/2015/assets/gbr-2015report-card.pdf

[29] Australian Government, Department of Environment and Energy, Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan – Progress on Implementation Review by Great Barrier Reef Independent Review Group, February 2017, p. 50, http://www.environment.gov.au/marine/gbr/long-term-sustainability-plan

[30] Queensland Government, “Types of erosion”, Last updated 18 December 2013, last reviewed 14 October 2015, https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/land/soil/erosion/types/ (Accessed 13 June 2017)

[31] Wahlquist, C., “Great Barrier Reef: Australia must act urgently on water quality, says Unesco”, The Guardian, 3 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/03/great-barrier-reef-australia-must-act-urgently-on-water-quality-says-unesco?CMP=share_btn_fb

[32] Brodie, J., Email correspondence, 9 June 2017

[33] Brodie, J., Christie, C., Devlin, M., Haynes, D., Morris, S., Ramsay, M., Waterhouse, J., and Yorkston, H., “Catchment management and the Great Barrier Reef”, pp. 203 & 205, Water Science and Technology Vol 43 No 9 pp 203–211 © IWA Publishing 200, May 2001, http://wst.iwaponline.com/content/43/9/203

[34] The Greens, “Protecting the Great Barrier Reef” (undated), https://greens.org.au/save-the-reef

[35] The Climate Council of Australia, “Raise the reef”, 13th October 2016, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/raise-the-reef

[36] Mahony, P., “The link that too many ignore”, Terrastendo, 26 August 2016, https://terrastendo.net/2016/08/26/the-link-that-too-many-ignore/

[37] Hughes, Terry P., Barnes, Michele L., Bellwood, David R., Cinner, Joshua E., Cumming, Graeme S., Jackson, Jeremy B.C., Kleypas, Joanie, van de Leemput, Ingrid A., Lough, Janice M., Morrison, Tiffany H.,  Palumbi, Stephen R., van Nes, Egbert H., Scheffer, Marten, “Coral reefs in the Anthropocene”, Nature, 546, 82–90, 1 June 2017 (published online 31 May 2017), doi:10.1038/nature22901, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature22901

[38] Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute of The University of Melbourne, “Zero Carbon Australia – Land Use: Agriculture and Forestry – Discussion Paper”, October, 2014, http://bze.org.au/landuse

[39] Wedderburn-Bisshop, G., Longmire, A., Rickards, L., “Neglected Transformational Responses: Implications of Excluding Short Lived Emissions and Near Term Projections in Greenhouse Gas Accounting”, International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 7, Issue 3, September 2015, pp.11-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: August 17, 2015, http://ijc.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.185/prod.269

[40] Dept of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, “Australian Food Statistics 2012-13″, Table 2.4, p. 53, http://www.agriculture.gov.au/ag-farm-food/food/publications/afs

[41] Tingle, L., “China trade deal adds $400 million to beef exports”, Australian Financial Review, 24 March 2017, http://www.afr.com/news/politics/china-trade-deal-adds-400-million-to-beef-exports-20170324-gv5qzl

[42] Anon., “Counting the Ecological Cost”, The Canberra Times, 29 May 2005

[43] Australian Government, Austrade, Tourism Research Australia, State Tourism Satellite Accounts 2014-15, https://www.tra.gov.au/tra/2016/research/State-Tourism-Satellite-Accounts_2014-15.html and https://www.tra.gov.au/tra/2016/documents/Economic-Industry/State_summaries.pdf

[44] Australian Government, Department of Environment and Energy, op. cit., p. 52

[45]  Farm Weekly, “Australian beef exports hit world top”, 30 April, 2017, http://www.farmweekly.com.au/news/agriculture/livestock/general-news/australian-beef-exports-hit-world-top/2755103.aspx?storypage=0

[46] Meat & Livestock Australia, Beef Fast Facts 2016, https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/fast-facts–maps/mla_beef-fast-facts-2016.pdf

[47] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef Health, 29 June 2017 (relating to 29 July 2017 update), http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/reef-health

Images

Brian Kinney, Wonderful and beautiful underwater world with corals and tropical fish (within Figure 1(b)), Shutterstock

Ryan McMinds, Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), Lizard Island, Flickr, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)  http://tinyurl.com/yaswsjes

skvoor, Australia map light blue map with shadow, Shutterstock

skvoor, United States map light blue map with shadow, Shutterstock

Slideshow images (except Tim Flannery): Takver, Photographs by: Julian Meehan, “Reef not coal snap action”, 5th Dec 2016, Flickr,  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tim Flannery’s image: The Climate Council of Australia, “Raise the reef”, 13th October 2016, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/raise-the-reef, Creative Commons attribution 3.0 Australia license (CC By 3.0 AU) (Climate Council reports note that “Climate Council of Australia Ltd copyright material is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License.”)

All photos in the slideshow, other than Tim Flannery’s, are from the “Reef not coal snap action”, held in Melbourne on 5th Dec 2016, and arranged by Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and 350.org.

Andrew Brooks, Griffith University, Gully erosion at Springvale Station, from “Research leads to Great Barrier Reef Rescue Purchase”, Griffith News, 23 June 2016 (Used with permission), https://app.secure.griffith.edu.au/news/2016/06/23/research-leads-to-great-barrier-reef-rescue-purchase/

ARC Centre of Excellence, Media Release “Two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching”, 10th April 2017, https://www.coralcoe.org.au/media-releases/two-thirds-of-great-barrier-reef-hit-by-back-to-back-mass-coral-bleaching

Animation (Figure 5)

Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Crown-of-Thorns Starfish distribution” (undated), http://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/biodiversity-ecology/threats/cots-animation.html (Accessed 11 June 2017)

Videos

Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Crown-of-thorns survey video”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tcYJ0cAuDU

Stanford University, Microdocs Project, “Crown-of-thorns starfish”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SpLgzPqCV8

Australian Government and Fitzroy Basis Association, “Gully erosion in the Fitzroy Basin”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhkFiQR4Axs

 

 

 

The state of Queensland is the beef production capital of Australia. At last count (2015), it had 11.7 million cattle, which was more than double its human population, and nearly double the cattle population of its nearest beef-producing rival, New South Wales.

Land clearing for beef production in the two states is the reason the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) nominated eastern Australia as one of eleven global deforestation fronts for the twenty years to 2030.

The states are also fierce rivals in rugby league, and the sport provides an opportunity to highlight the extent of land clearing.

In Queensland alone, from 1988 to 2015, an area equivalent to nearly 11 million rugby fields was cleared for pasture. [Footnote] That’s a rate of three-quarters of a rugby field per minute, and represents 91 per cent of total land clearing in the state. The figures include clearing of regrowth, demonstrating the resilience of forest and other wooded vegetation if given the chance to regenerate. But it is seldom given such a chance in Queensland.

A partial ban on broadscale clearing, introduced in 2006, was overturned by the conservative Liberal National Party government in 2013, and clearing is now accelerating. The problem is illustrated by the following chart.

Figure 1: Extent of Queensland land clearing 1988-2015

In New South Wales, the Native Vegetation Act was repealed by the conservative Liberal Party government in late 2016, with an anticipated loss of biodiversity and increased land clearing.

The clearing contributes significantly to: loss of biodiversity; the release of carbon contained in the vegetation and soil; and an ongoing loss of carbon sequestration. The carbon emissions are not allocated against livestock production in official greenhouse gas inventories, causing livestock-related emissions to be understated.

Impact on the Great Barrier Reef

The clearing, along with cattle grazing in cleared and uncleared areas, causes soil to be eroded and carried by adjoining streams and rivers to the coast, significantly affecting one of the world’s natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Queensland Government’s 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement confirmed that beef production in the surrounding catchment was responsible for 75% of sediment, 54% of phosphorus and 40% of nitrogen in the reef’s waters.

Jon Brodie is the Chief Research Scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University. He has reported that the sediment and nutrients, along with pesticides, have caused: (a) the waters of the reef to become cloudier, thereby reducing the sunlight available for the growth of corals, seagrass and marine algae; (b) increased frequency of crown of thorns starfish outbreaks, increasing the rate of coral deaths (responsible for 42 per cent of coral loss from 1985 to 2012);  (c) some reefs to become dominated by algae and other organisms, rather than coral; and (d) an increase in coral diseases.

He has said:

“These effects, together with those of climate change, have contributed to the severe decline in the overall health of the GBR.”

The government’s most recent Reef Water Quality Protection Plan report card scored graziers’ response to the calamity a “D” for “poor”.

The following image shows sediment that has been carried to the coast along the Burdekin River, where some of the highest cattle numbers are found.

Figure 2: Satellite image of heavy sediment along the Queensland coast

No word on cattle grazing’s reef impacts from the Climate Council

In late 2016, the Climate Council of Australia released a video of chairman Tim Flannery, commissioner Lesley Hughes and CEO Amanda McKenzie snorkeling in the waters of the reef. They were expressing grave concern about the reef’s condition, but said nothing about the devastating impact of beef production.

The Climate Council’s silence might not be surprising when you consider Flannery’s close association with the livestock sector, including his former contract with Meat & Livestock Australia. However, I am not in a position to say that any person or organisation has tried to influence others, or that any person or organisation has been influenced.

Figure 3: Professor Tim Flannery reporting from the Great Barrier Reef

Nevertheless, I feel it’s worth noting that a search for the word “beef” on the council’s website yields only four results, while the term “fossil fuel” yields one hundred and seventy.

Even then, three of the items on beef, and their related reports, were expressing concern over the adverse impact of climate change on its production, rather than the other way around! Could you imagine the council expressing concern over a reduction in coal production?

The one short website article (for which there was no related report) that raised some concerns about the impact of animal-based foods was not published until October 2016, more than five years after the councilors came together in the council’s predecessor organisation, the Climate Commission. In that article, the adverse impacts were conservative, and the council still couldn’t help itself; it concluded with comments not on the livestock sector, but on power generation.

At a Melbourne presentation in April 2013 by Flannery, McKenzie and fellow climate commissioner, Will Steffen, I pointed out that the then forthcoming discussion paper by climate change campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (University of Melbourne) would indicate that animal agriculture was responsible for around 50 percent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions after allowing for various factors, such as: livestock-related land clearing; soil carbon losses; shorter-lived greenhouse gases; and a 20-year “global warming potential“. The response was lukewarm, and I received no meaningful response to a subsequent email on the matter.

Here are some comments from the councilors’ reef video:

Hughes:

“The Great Barrier Reef is telling us that we must stop burning fossil fuels if we are to have a Great Barrier Reef that our children and grandchildren can enjoy in the future.”

Terrastendo: So the reef is telling us that? Why aren’t you telling us about the impact of diet?

Hughes:

“So what we’re seeing today is that some of the corals in this site have recovered from the bleaching but others haven’t. And the ones that have died have started to become covered in a greeny, browny, sludgey algae. And what we’re really worried about is that if bleaching keeps happening due to warming, then there’ll be less and less time for our reefs to recover.”

Terrastendo: Could that algae be caused by the run-off from cattle farms, which also reduces the coral’s resilience?

Here’s what the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says (consistent with Jon Brodie’s comments referred to earlier):

“Most sediment entering the Great Barrier Reef comes from catchments in major pastoral areas such as the Burdekin, Herbert and Fitzroy rivers.”

“Changes in water quality affect the biodiversity and resilience of Reef systems. Higher concentrations of pollutants, such as suspended sediments, nitrogen and phosphorus, indicated by higher levels of chlorophyll and lower water clarity, leader [sic] to more algae and less coral diversity. In these conditions, algae take over and reduce the chances for new hard corals to establish and grow.”

McKenzie:

“Our request to you is simple; keep talking about the reef.”

Terrastendo: What, just talk about it? No need to avoid eating meat?

Flannery:

“It really is time to start making some noise again. So whether it’s around the dinner table, or at work or when you’re talking to your local politician, start talking about the reef. It’s too important to stay silent.”

Terrastendo: But still nothing about diet? Isn’t that important too? What are you eating at the dinner table?

The growing “tsunami” of land clearing in Queensland

As if all that’s not bad enough, land clearing in Queensland may be entering a new phase of growth, primarily driven by beef production. WWF has recently released a report with the title, “Accelerating bushland destruction in Queensland”.

It reported that the legislative changes of 2013 allow clearing of remnant bushland at unlimited scale under “self-assessable codes” for various purposes, when previously most such clearing had required a permit. One of those codes is thinning to correct supposed “thickening” of forests. WWF has stated (with my underline):

“Thinning in particular, allows the bulldozing of up to 75% of trees in a forest, leaving only a scatter of trees behind. It is merely clearing for pasture masquerading as a beneficial treatment.”

“The Queensland Government must tighten these codes as soon as possible to prevent the growing tsunami of land clearing in Queensland.”

The report includes the following map, showing notifications of 10 hectares or more under the self-assessable codes from end of July 2016 to February 2017. Those marked in purple are within the Great Barrier Reef catchment. The smaller icons indicate notifications of 1-10 hectares, while larger icons indicate notifications of more than 100 hectares. After adjusting for anomalies in the data, WWF reported that notifications jumped fifty per cent from January to February 2017.

Figure 4: Land clearing notifications in Queensland Jul 2016 – Feb 2017 (Interactive)

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Expansion of China-Australia Free Trade Agreement

In late March, 2017, Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, jointly announced a major extension to the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), allowing an increase in chilled meat exports from Australia. The announcement was described as a “huge win” within the Australian beef sector, but at what cost for the country’s environment and other sectors of the economy, such as tourism?

Figure 5: Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang

The dramatic increase in livestock-related land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales, with its devastating environmental consequences, could have been strongly influenced by ChAFTA (the first phase of which was announced in November 2014) and its recent expansion. Australia’s response to the rapidly increasing demand for red meat in China could contribute significantly to the eventual demise of the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland government helps by purchasing cattle station

The minority Labor government in Queensland, elected in 2015, had sought to reintroduce the ban on broadscale land clearing, but was unable to generate enough votes in parliament. So what else could it do?

In an effort to reduce erosion run-off from uncleared lands, it purchased the 56,000 hectare Springvale cattle station on Cape York (north-west of Port Douglas and twenty kilometres north of the Daintree National Park), with the intention of removing the cattle and rehabilitating the station’s stream and river banks and gullies. Here’s an ABC news bulletin from June 2016 (duration 2:24).

Video: ABC News: Queensland Government buys Cape York Cattle Property

As stated in the report, this one property has been responsible for forty per cent (500,000 tonnes) of sediment flowing into the Normanby River system. That system, in turn, contributes around fifty per cent of the total run off to the northern section of the reef. However, with 4,300 cattle, it has only a tiny percentage of the cattle population within the overall Great Barrier Reef catchment area, so it seems much more work is required. Environment minister, Steven Miles, has said the state may purchase additional properties that are also polluting the reef system.

A telling segment of the video shows a man walking through a massive gully (much taller than himself) created by generations of cattle grazing.

Conclusion

The massive extent of livestock production and its destructive environmental impacts are almost universally under-stated by environmental organisations, and conveniently ignored by governments looking to satisfy electorates with supposedly positive short-term economic news. With that sort of selective vision, the eventual outcomes may be catastrophic for our natural environment and the people and economies ultimately depending on its well-being. Any opportunity that may remain to avoid disaster is rapidly disappearing.

Author

Paul Mahony

Footnote

At 8,400 square metres, the area of a rugby field is 56 per cent larger than that of an American football field (5,363 square metres) and between 2 and 31 per cent larger than that of a FIFA soccer field (6,400 – 8,250 square metres).

References

Meat & Livestock Australia, “Fast Facts 2016: Australia’s Beef Industry”, https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/fast-facts–maps/mla_beef-fast-facts-2016.pdf

World Wide Fund for Nature (World Wildlife Fund), “WWF Living Forests Report”, Chapter 5 and Chapter 5 Executive Summary, http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/lfr_chapter_5_executive_summary_final.pdf; http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/living_forests_report_chapter_5_1.pdf

Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation. 2015. Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14: a Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) report. DSITI, Brisbane, Table 4, p. 34

Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation. 2016. Land cover change in Queensland 2014–15: a Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) report. DSITI, Brisbane, Table 4, p. 21

Perry, N., “The NSW government is choosing to undermine native vegetation and biodiversity”, The Conversation, 9th May 2016, https://theconversation.com/the-nsw-government-is-choosing-to-undermine-native-vegetation-and-biodiversity-59066

Raper, A., “NSW Government laws to make it easier for farmers to clear land”, ABC News, 3rd May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-03/nsw-government-spend-million-private-conservation-projects/7378118

New South Wales Government, “Legislation to repeal Native Vegetation Act passes NSW Parliament”, 17th November 2016, https://www.nsw.gov.au/news-and-events/news/legislation-to-repeal-native-vegetation-act-passes-nsw-parliament/

Brodie, J., “Cloudy issue: we need to fix the Barrier Reef’s murky waters”, The Conversation, 21st May 2015, https://theconversation.com/cloudy-issue-we-need-to-fix-the-barrier-reefs-murky-waters-39380

Kroon, F., Turner, R., Smith, R., Warne, M., Hunter, H., Bartley, R., Wilkinson, S., Lewis, S., Waters, D., Caroll, C., 2013 “Scientific Consensus Statement: Sources of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment”, Ch. 4, p. 12, The State of Queensland, Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, July, 2013, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/sources-of-pollutants.aspx

Queensland Government, “Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015: Reef water quality protection plan”, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/2015/ and http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/2015/assets/gbr-2015report-card.pdf

The Climate Council of Australia, “Raise the reef”, 13th October 2016, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/raise-the-reef

Manning, P., “Wrestling with a climate conundrum”, Sydney Morning Herald, 19th Feb 2011, http://www.smh.com.au/business/wrestling-with-a-climate-conundrum-20110218-1azhd.html#ixzz47IvGiZjp

De’ath, G., Katharina Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., Puotinen, M., “The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes”, PNAS 2012 109 (44) 17995-17999; published ahead of print October 1, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1208909109 (Cited in Brodie, J. ibid.), http://www.pnas.org/citmgr?gca=pnas%3B109%2F44%2F17995

The Climate Council of Australia, “From farm to plate to the atmosphere: food-related emissions”, 16th October 2016, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/from-farm-to-plate-to-the-atmosphere-reducing-your-food-related-emissions

The Climate Council of Australia, “Feeding a Hungry Nation: Climate change, Food and Farming in Australia” by Lesley Hughes, Will Steffen, Martin Rice and Alix Pearce, 7th October 2015, http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/7579c324216d1e76e8a50095aac45d66.pdf and http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/foodsecurityreport2015

The Climate Council of Australia, “The Critical Decade: Queensland climate impacts and opportunities” by Will Steffen, Lesley Hughes, Veena Sahajwalla and Gerry Hueston, 2012, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/queensland-climate-impacts-and-opportunities and https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/d71d70af18c737ae9f175598c831ae45.pdf

Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute of The University of Melbourne, “Zero Carbon Australia – Land Use: Agriculture and Forestry – Discussion Paper”, October, 2014, http://bze.org.au/landuse

Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Managing the reef”, undated, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/threats-to-the-reef/declining-water-quality

Australian Government, Australian Institute of Marine Science, “Backgrounder: Impact of land runoff”, undated, http://www.aims.gov.au/impact-of-runoff

World Wide Fund for Nature, “Accelerating bushland destruction in Queensland: Clearing under Self Assessable Codes takes major leap upward”, March 2017, http://www.wwf.org.au/ArticleDocuments/360/pub-accelerating-bushland-destruction-in-queensland-21mar17.pdf.aspx?Embed=Yx

Barbour, L. and Locke, S., “Australian meat industry wins better access to lucrative Chinese market”, ABC News, 24th March 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-24/nrn-more-chilled-beef-to-china/8379284

Phys.org, “Australian state buys cattle station to help Barrier Reef”, 22nd June 2016, https://phys.org/news/2016-06-australian-state-cattle-station-barrier.html

Willacy, M., ABC News, “Great Barrier Reef: Queensland Government buys $7m cattle station in ‘unprecedented’ protection bid”, 28th June 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-22/great-barrier-reef-government-buys-cattle-station-protection-bid/7533216

Thomsen, S., “The Queensland government just spent $7 million buying a huge farm to stop run-off into the Great Barrier Reef”, 22nd June 2016, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-queensland-government-just-spent-7-million-buying-a-huge-farm-to-stop-run-off-into-the-great-barrier-reef-2016-6

The State of Queensland, “Springvale Station”, undated, https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/plants-animals/community/springvale-station/
The State of Queensland (Department of Environment and Heritage Protection) 2017, Plan of Springvale Station, http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/assets/documents/plants-animals/community/springvale-station-map.pdf

Slaney & Co, “Springvale Station, Lakeland: Largescale irrigated farming opportunity” (Property ID #1297) (accessed 24th March 2017), http://www.slaneyandco.com.au/property/large-scale-irrigated-farming-opportunity/

Images

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Heavy Sediment along the Queensland Coast | Flickr | Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Climate Council of Australia, “Raise the Reef”, op cit., Creative Commons attribution 3.0 Australia license (CC By 3.0 AU) (Climate Council reports note that “Climate Council of Australia Ltd copyright material is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License.”)

Map of landclearing notifications in Queensland, Notifications of 10 ha or more under Queensland’s Self-Assessable clearing codes from end of July 2016 to Feb 2017, by lots on plans, https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1L3revYC3nAXTLDCTlobq-0nbQ6c&ll=-21.577549828025017%2C146.4797608751221&z=6

World Economic Forum | The Global Impact of China’s Economic Transformation: Li Keqiang | Flickr | 21st January 2015 | Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Video

WWF, “ABC News: Qld Government buys Cape York Cattle Property”, 23rd June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdNQC-X8vfs

Update

For clarity, the term “the overall area” has been replaced with “the figures” in the fourth paragraph.

5th August 2017: Two paragraphs have been amended to clarify the fact that erosion from cattle grazing occurs on uncleared, as well as cleared, land (consistent with many of my previous articles).

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