Global Warming Bakes Australia's Natural Treasures

SYDNEY, Australia, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - Three of Australia’s World Heritage Areas are showing signs of significant damage due to low levels of climate change - Kakadu National Park, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef according to a report released today by Climate Action Network Australia.

Another World Heritage Area, the Blue Mountains, will be affected by higher levels of climate change, says the report "Warnings from the Bush," authored by Anna Reynolds. Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain, will lose its alpine environment due to global warming, she predicts.


The koala, the state animal of Queensland, Australia, is beloved around the world. (Photo courtesy Mari Kylmäluoma)
At risk from climate change are the animals featured as the state emblems of three Australian states - The koala of Queensland, the Leadbeater's possum of Victoria state, and the hairy-nosed wombat of South Australia.

Reynolds said yesterday that even Australia, the only country that has a continent all to itself, is no longer an island when it comes to global warming. "If we want to avoid environmental damage in Australia, we have to take the lead by getting global reductions," she said referring to greenhouse gas emissions link to climate warming.

"A key point there is our role in Asia," said Reynolds, "because Asia is where the big energy growth will be in the next 50 years and it's up to us to ensure that growth is from renewable energy instead of our coal."

At least 87 other Australian animals have been specifically identified as being at risk from climate warming, and scientists say the number of animals at risk could be far higher if broader studies were undertaken.

Half of the "cloud" rainforests of north Queensland's Wet Tropics would be devastated by a temperature rise of just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F.), said Dr. David Hilbert, principal research scientist at the CSIRO Tropical Forest Research Centre. The Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organization (CSIRO) is the Australian government's research branch.


Mossman River Gorge, Queensland (Photo credit unknown)
"CSIRO atmospheric scientists are now predicting two to five degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century, so a one degree change is liable to happen within 30 to 50 years," said Dr. Hilbert.

The decline in mountain rainforests is likely to be matched by a rise in the extinction rate among species that occurred only in those habitats, Dr. Hilbert believes.

In another part of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin faces a 12 to 35 percent cut in average flow by 2050 as the southern states grow hotter and drier, adding to the pressures on the Basin's over-extracted and salt affected rivers, the Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) report forecasts.

The Murray-Darling Basin extends from north of Roma in Queensland to Goolwa in South Australia and including three quarters of New South Wales and half of Victoria it is the heartland and the economic powerhouse of rural Australia. It extends across one-seventh of the continent and has a population of nearly two million people. Another million people outside the region depend heavily upon its resources.

Climate warming is also being felt by the sensitive corals of the world's longest reef. Australia's Great Barrier Reef runs the risk of heat related coral bleaching, which affected 16 percent of the world's reefs in 1998, said the Climate Action Network. The corals are already struggling for life the in face of existing threats such as land based run-off.

"Of course, Dr. Hilbert said, "not only do we have to think about warming and changes in rainfall, we have to couple that with the invasion of exotic species and land clearing which, all combined, are putting considerable stress on these natural ecosystems," he said.

Through the Australian Greenhouse Office, the Australian government relies on voluntary emission reduction agreements with companies, although in the first four years of operation, only 209 of Australia's 890,000 businesses signed on.


Drought in Australia means bare soil, poor crops, starving livestock, and depleted water stores. (Photo courtesy Aussie Schoolhouse Foundation)
That is nowhere near enough to reduce climate warming, say the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace. Despite spending $1 billion on a domestic greenhouse gas limitation program, emission rates from transport and energy have accelerated since Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol, they point out.

Australia is not required by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the five year period 2008 to 2012 as other industrialized nations governed by the protocol must do. Australia is one of the five such countries that is allowed to increase emissions in that period, but the increase must be limited to eight percent.

The Australian Greenhouse Office says the agency is implementing a range of initiatives with government agencies at all levels to encourage resource efficiency and greenhouse gas abatement throughout the public sector.

But environmental groups object to the policy of the Australian government that supports the expansion of fossil fuel use, for instance, by providing about A$240 million in excise tax exemption to develop oil shale.