SCIENCE
06/26/2017 11:43 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2017

The REAL Cost Of Losing The Great Barrier Reef

A report says the landmark is "priceless," but if the reef were given a value, it'd be worth billions.

SYDNEY ― After back-to-back bleaching incidents, premature obituaries and general malaise surrounding the Great Barrier Reef, Australian economists said on Monday they’ve given it a financial value should it disappear: a cool $42 billion.

A new report compiled by the accounting firm Deloitte declared the reef, the largest living structure on the planet and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a natural asset “too big to fail.” The natural world wonder, it said, supports 64,000 jobs alone. Were it a standalone business, the reef would be one of the largest employers in Australia.

The video below references statistics in Australian dollars. Those figures have been converted to United States dollars throughout this story.

The statistics come as the Great Barrier faces an onslaught of ongoing and upcoming threats, primarily a rapidly warming world spurred by man-made climate change. The Australian government has announced efforts to save at least parts of the reef, but has also approved massive fossil fuel projects scientists say would only further imperil the delicate coral ecosystem.

The report notes that although it strives to give the reef a dollar figure, its value “is priceless and we know that there is no replacement.”

“However, identifying, measuring and reporting on the economic and social value of the environment elevates its significance in decision making,” the report states. “Valuing nature in monetary terms can effectively inform policy settings and help industry, government, the scientific community and the wider public understand the contribution of the environment, or in this case the Great Barrier Reef, to the economy and society.”

Researchers have ascribed monetary figures to natural wonders before. Last year, a team at Colorado State University estimated land protected by America’s National Park Service was worth about $92 billion. The New York Times noted a 1997 paper attempted to give a value to all of nature. The 20-year-old figure researchers settled on ended up somewhere between $16 and $54 trillion, although they said a likely estimate was $33 trillion.

Gary Cranich / Queensland Museum

The Great Barrier Reef, a 1,600-mile-long behemoth that covers more than 133,000 square miles, is the crown jewel of Australia’s natural offerings, both in biodiversity and tourism value. Of its $42 billion valuation, $22 billion of that was attributed to its value in attracting travelers.

“As the largest living structure on Earth and one of the world’s most complex and diverse natural ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef is justifiably considered priceless and irreplaceable,” Steve Sargent, director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, said in a statement. “Alongside its important environmental and ecological function, this report demonstrates that the reef also offers substantial value to Australia and the world in terms of the economic activity it generates and the employment and experiences it supports across the tourism, fishing, recreation and scientific industries.”

Deloitte polled 1,500 Australians and residents from 10 other countries to determine how valuable the populace considered the reef. Two-thirds of those said they’d be willing to pay money to protect the structure based on its importance to the planet.

UNESCO, the United Nation’s agency that identifies sites with great value to humanity, last week declared the world’s reefs were in dire jeopardy due to rising global temperatures. The group said the “only opportunity” to protect the 29 reefs listed as world heritage sites would be to abide by the terms of the landmark Paris climate agreement and limit temperatures from warming no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius ― 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit ― above pre-industrial levels. 

However, current projections say worldwide pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions are far short of what’s necessary to achieve that goal, particularly after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the accord.

Following the UNESCO report, Greenpeace Australia called on the country’s government to “stop funding climate change.”

“What the UNESCO report makes clear is that the government’s Reef 2050 plan is just tinkering at the edges of environmental disaster ― its measures are simply not enough. If we are going to stand a chance of slowing climate change and preserving what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef, we have to stop funding the fossil fuel industry and transition to clean, renewable energy as fast as possible,” the group said.

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