House debates

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Questions without Notice

Climate Change

3:31 pm

Photo of Yvette D'AthYvette D'Ath (Petrie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Will the minister outline the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change and provide an update on government action to manage this threat?

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Petrie for the question. As a Queenslander, the member for Petrie has a strong understanding of the economic benefits of the Great Barrier Reef, but today I want to talk about both the environmental importance of the Great Barrier Reef and also the environmental threats from climate change.

When we can easily lose the context of just how unusual the system that we have in the Great Barrier Reef is by international standards, we could look at a place like the Caribbean, where the reefs have 60 different species of coral compared to our own Great Barrier Reef, with 560 different species of coral. The reef is under threat very directly through climate change in a few ways: first of all, through significant increases in ocean temperatures; secondly, through increased acidification of the ocean; and, thirdly, through the impact of more major weather events. The impact of those major weather events is clear: as cyclones go through, the health of the reef is compromised immediately, both through the destruction of coral and also through the increased run-off of floodwaters, as they often bring nutrients and agricultural chemicals down to the Great Barrier Reef. Added to that you have the impact of bleaching, which occurs through the increased ocean temperatures which are being seen in the area.

There is also increased acidification of the ocean. We often talk about the role that trees and forests have as carbon sinks. We forget the extent to which the ocean also plays that role. As it does, though, carbonic acid is formed and the pH of the ocean has fallen by 0.1—towards a higher level of acidification. That has an impact. It does not kill the coral, but it means the coral grows more slowly. When you add the impacts together—the impact of major weather events and bleaching events—there is a need for the reef to recover, and with increased acidification that recovery happens more slowly. It means there are some really significant challenges to the reef by virtue of climate change.

In dealing with that, as well as the government dealing with the causes of climate change, it is also important that we do what we can to improve the health of the reef so that recovery, even as these events occur, can at least happen in a more resilient ecosystem. That is why the government, ever since 2007, has been involved in the Reef Rescue program, working with $200 million under Caring for our Country and working directly with the graziers and the cane growers up and down the Queensland coast to change their systems. We have situations now where cane growers have managed to plot each square metre of their cane fields and connect that to a GPS, and they are able to locate very precisely where chemical and fertiliser is added so that no more than is required is used. When the rains then come, the run-off is reduced. Similar work is being done with beef producers to try to improve the ground cover so that run-off is diminished. This provides a greater opportunity for the reef to be a healthier system.

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Christensen interjecting

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Dawson, of all people, should understand this, because so much of the economy of his seat is reliant on there being a healthy reef system, a healthy Great Barrier Reef, to preserve the ecology of what is—at least members on this side of the House understand, Member for Dawson—one of the most precious systems in the world.

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.