New data released by the Government shows land clearing in the Great Barrier Reef catchment in the year to June 2017 was at its second highest in 10 years.
Data published in the Government’s quarterly emissions update shows 152,000 hectares were cleared in the catchment last year, marginally less than the amount cleared in 2015/16.
That takes the total land cleared in the catchment in the last five years to 770,000 hectares — an area about three times as large as the ACT — which Wilderness Society spokesperson Jessica Panegyres described as a “crisis”.
“The Federal Government is promising the world it’s doing everything it can to protect the reef, but it’s failing,” Ms Panegyres said.
The centrepiece of the Government’s climate policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund, gives carbon credits to farmers who avoid clearing or who regenerate native vegetation.
Federal Minister for the Environment Melissa Price said state and territory governments were primarily responsible for regulating land clearing, and net land sector emissions had declined since 2004/05.
“This declining trend reflects lower emissions from forest clearing and native forest harvesting, and more sequestration in regrowing forests,” she said in a statement.
“We know climate change is a big issue for the Reef and this is why we have invested more than $400 million to help protect the reef through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.”
The Government has come under fire for granting the Great Barrier Reef Foundation $444 million in funding without a competitive tender process and without the foundation actually asking for the money.
The Opposition has vowed to take the money back from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation if it wins government.
Too early to tell if reforms have slowed land clearing
The new land clearing figures were published in the Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which also showed that greenhouse gas emissions had risen for the third year in a row.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws showed the Government sat on the data for nearly two months before it publishing last Friday.
Ms Panegyres is calling for stricter land clearing laws at the federal level to prevent future broad-scale deforestation, such as has been occurring in Queensland.
“That means no new fossil fuel projects or expansions, a credible domestic emissions reduction target, and new national laws that stop the escalating deforestation crisis and actually protect our incredible environment.”
It is still too early to tell whether tightened land clearing reforms brought in by the Palaszczuk Government in May this year have had an effect.
A massive jump in tree clearing was recorded in the year leading up to the State Government’s first attempt to restore protections in 2015/16, and it’s possible that 2016/17’s jump was also a result of “panic clearing” according to the WWF.
The reforms passed in May banned broad-scale clearing and introduced requirements for farmers to obtain approval to thin vegetation.
But the next round of tree-clearing data will include 11 months under laws brought in by the Newman government.
Along with issues like climate change and coastal development, poor water quality from land-based runoff is listed as a key threat to the reef by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Research has shown that sediment runoff increases by a factor of about four when trees are replaced with paddocks, according to Jon Olley from the Australian Rivers Institute.
“In the tropics, these systems tend to be more vulnerable because you do have that extended dry season and then your rainfall typically comes in a short, three-month period,” Professor Olley told the ABC earlier this year.
The Federal Government was heavily criticised earlier this year when it granted conditional approval for 2,000 hectares to be cleared at Kingvale Station in the reef catchment on Cape York.
The Queensland Department of Environment and Science was contacted for comment.