The idea that the Sydney Opera House or Uluru could disappear within the next 100 years is frankly absurd. However, it’s entirely possible that another of our great national icons, the Great Barrier Reef, will not exist come the twenty-second century.
Professor Ross Garnaut, the Federal Government’s climate change adviser, has predicted three possible outcomes for the reef, depending on targets for greenhouse gas emissions agreed in Copenhagen later this year. The best case scenario is ‘widespread bleaching’, while the worst is its ‘catastrophic destruction’. Somewhere in the middle – and most likely - is the ‘disappearance of the reef as we know it’. Losing the reef would be an unmitigated disaster for Australia’s environment and reputation, but unabated climate change will have further dramatic implications for some of Australia’s other renowned natural attractions.
An average global temperature rise of just 2 or 3 degrees will see 80 per cent of the Kakadu wetlands disappear. Within the next 100 years, storm tides around Cairns would increase by 22 per cent and tropical rainforest in North Queensland could be halved. These outcomes would have a dire impact on Australia’s $90 billion tourism industry. Each of these regions supports thousands of tourism jobs and is hugely important to the economy, especially at a local level.
Our natural assets are among our biggest tourism drawcards. Australia boasts unique landscapes instantly recognisable to potential visitors worldwide, and these help differentiate our product in the fiercely competitive international marketplace. Nature-based tourism is growing quickly and becoming increasingly valuable, with nature visitors spending $27 billion across Australia in 2007. This burgeoning demand is putting pressure on our national parks and other natural wonderlands, and therefore it’s imperative these areas are properly managed. While as many people as possible should be able to enjoy them, that must not be at the cost of their preservation. Indeed, maintaining their natural integrity is crucial to them remaining desirable destinations.
The difficulty of striking this balance makes programs like the Federal Government’s National Landscapes Initiative all the more important, because they promote our world-class natural environments, as well as helping to protect them. However, just as nature-based tourism is really taking off, climate change is posing a serious threat. If our natural attractions are compromised, it will cost us dearly. The Great Barrier Reef alone is worth $6 billion to the economy each year and supports 33,000 jobs. But that’s merely part of the bigger picture - any downturn will inevitably have flow-on effects for related businesses like airlines, land transport providers and accommodation owners and operators.
This need not be the case, however, and appropriate processes to protect our natural assets will benefit the Australian tourism industry, and therefore the economy generally, in the longer term. Unfortunately, unilateral action on climate change will be ineffectual and Australia must be a strong international advocate for a workable post-Kyoto agreement that sets binding targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Only within a meaningful global emissions framework can Australia attempt to secure the long-term protection and sustainability of natural tourism assets.
At home, the tourism industry should be explicitly recognised by the federal government’s proposed Climate Change Action Fund, which will provide assistance to affected businesses adjusting to a carbon-constrained economy. This would be a positive way of harnessing innovation and increasing efficiency in the industry. Complementary programs, such as the Green Building Fund, could also be bolstered and applied to the tourism accommodation sector.
The federal government should also use its tax reform agenda to foster proactive corporate behaviour by tourism operators. For example, accelerating the depreciation of aircraft would expedite the introduction of quieter, more carbon-efficient aircraft such as the Airbus A380 by Australian airlines. Similar depreciation laws for buildings would encourage the ‘green’ renovation of older properties, such as hotels. Again, these are progressive government policies that have the common thread of providing incentives for the private sector to act.
For its part, the tourism industry must be proactive, committing to progress in developing green building and accommodation standards and to phasing in those new-generation aircraft to change the parameters of long-haul travel. The national policies that determine Australia’s global stance on climate change must be matched by sector-specific policies that add value to that approach.
More generally, schemes must be implemented which encourage businesses to reduce their emissions without imposing crippling costs and unjust penalties; however, that is merely the stepping off point, the absolute minimum required to ensure greenhouse gases don’t cause irreparable damage to our natural environments.
Fundamentally, preserving the Great Barrier Reef, the Kakadu wetlands, the Queensland rainforest and the snowfields of the Australian Alps is simply the right thing to do for our children and the planet. Their natural value is intrinsic and, as the current custodians, we are duty-bound to try to ensure they are left in the same condition as we found them. However, despite the inherent value in maintaining our natural assets, in today’s world it often seems as if there’s only one value that really counts – the dollar value – and in that regard tourism can make a compelling case.
Put simply, unless these spectacular places are preserved, it will threaten Australia’s $90 billion dollar tourism industry, which includes exports of more than $22 billion a year. Now that’s value in anyone’s language.