Five years of Reef Aid: Saving the Reef starts here

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s most extensive coral reef system, containing over 2,900 individual reefs, more than 1,000 islands, and some 6,000 km2 of seagrass beds.

The Reef supports an amazing diversity of life, the 60,000-year-old culture of over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and employment for some 64,000 people.

As stewards of this global natural icon, Australians know it’s more than a reef – it’s a culture, an inspiration, an income, and a home.

2021 marks 40 years since the Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Area. Over those 40 years, the Reef has faced many threats, including cyclones, land use change, overfishing and Crown-of-Thorns Starfish outbreaks. However, two impacts pose the greatest threat to the future of the Reef: climate change and water pollution.

The Reef’s two biggest threats

Recent consecutive bleaching events are a stark reminder that climate change is the greatest threat to the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs globally. We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the near complete loss of coral on the Reef.

Simultaneously, we must buy the Reef time by giving it clean water to boost its resilience to, and recovery from, climate impacts. We can do this by cutting the sediment and nutrient pollutants running off the land and into the Reef lagoon.

Pollutants such as sediment, pesticides and fertiliser can wash out to the Reef in large volumes, particularly after heavy rain events. Credit Toby Peet / Story in Progress.

In 2015, Australian governments set ambitious water quality targets to cut Reef pollution. However, progress has been slow. The latest Reef Report card showed a high risk that the 2025 pollution reduction targets will not be met. The investment needed to achieve the targets is also well beyond current government funding.

Greening Australia has committed to help deliver these targets and bring in further investment, focusing on what we can do, rather than what we can’t. We’re implementing on-ground solutions that improve water quality locally and tackle climate change nationally through carbon storage – addressing both the Reef’s biggest problems at once.

What can be done in five years

Five years ago, when Greening Australia launched our Reef Aid program, we focused on taking science-led, practical action by remediating eroding gullies to reduce sediment run-off – at that time identified as the biggest pollution challenge facing the Reef.

We aimed to achieve a 50-80% improvement in the quality of water leaving our gully projects and to raise $23 million by 2021. We’ve exceeded both targets.

Greening Australia’s Michael Vyse and Virgin Founder, Sir Richard Branson, at the Reef Aid launch in May 2016.

There’s a lot to celebrate. In five years, we’ve achieved so much:

  • Raised over $35 million in investment from government, philanthropists and businesses
  • Broke ground on over 30 projects from Rockhampton to Cairns
  • Achieved an average 80-90% improvement in water quality leaving our gully projects
  • Restored 1,750 hectares of gullies and wetlands (equivalent to 875 MCGs)
  • Stopped over 22,000 tonnes of sediment from polluting the Reef (equivalent to more than 500 fully loaded semi-trailers)
  • Worked with 35 different landholders and Indigenous groups
  • Won awards for environmental leadership and job creation

We completed the largest gully remediation experiment in the Reef catchments. We tested methods of stabilising massive eroding gullies to find the most effective at stopping sediment and have begun rolling out these methods in high priority catchments. 

We trialled innovative methods: to work with nature to control weeds choking waterways; to construct wetlands that treat run-off and fishways that restore fish passage; and to use drones to speed up every stage of our restoration projects.

Over the past five years, the government targets for reducing Reef pollution have been further refined, and crucially, nutrient pollution has also been identified as a much greater challenge. We’ve expanded our goals so that the Reef Aid program now has an ambitious 2030 target to cut dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) pollution, to add to our sediment target.

It’s taken a community to come this far. We’ve worked with landholders, Traditional Owners, businesses, government, philanthropists, and scientists to bring this work to life. With every project we’ve learned more about putting science into practice, refining our methods to achieve even greater outcomes.

Working closely with Reef researchers, like those at TropWater, to design and measure the outcomes of our restoration projects allows Greening Australia to continually refine our methods for more effective outcomes. Credit Toby Peet / Story in Progress.


Planning for the future

The next few years are pivotal. We need to take what we’ve learned and increase our scale and speed to give the Reef the clean water it needs.

Critical to our success will be combining the multi-generational knowledge of Traditional Custodians with contemporary science and innovation, to co-design the most effective interventions for managing Country.

We are developing projects in the highest priority regions in the Reef catchments to help meet the overall pollution reduction targets where it matters most.

Co-designing projects with the Traditional Custodians of Sea Country to heal the land and create economic opportunities, as we’ve done with Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation, is essential for successful, sustained regeneration. Credit Toby Peet / Story in Progress.

By 2030, Greening Australia’s Reef Aid goals are to:

  • Stabilise and reforest 2,000 hectares of eroding gullies
  • Restore 10,000 hectares of wetlands
  • Stop 400,000 tonnes of sediment reaching Reef waters
  • Stop 724 tonnes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) from reaching the Reef

Our 2030 pollution reduction goals represent 20% of total reductions needed to achieve Reef wide targets and give the Reef the clean water it needs.

To simultaneously tackle climate change, we also aim to revegetate degraded land on a massive scale – by 2030, Greening Australia aims to have planted 330,000 hectares of native trees and shrubs, to capture 3.3 million tonnes of carbon per year.

Investing in a healthy Reef

A 2019 government-funded costings report found that an investment of $4 billion is needed to achieve the official Reef-safe water quality targets.

Greening Australia’s focus on ecosystem repair means our projects deliver a slew of benefits beyond water quality improvements, such as carbon storage, habitat for critical species, local jobs and support for Indigenous-led enterprises.

That makes them key prospects for innovative environmental financing. We’ve already begun exploring and implementing market mechanisms such as carbon, blue carbon, water quality and biodiversity credits to bring in greater private investment and scale up our impact for the Reef (watch our webinar on investing in a healthy Reef).

Over the next five years, we’ll focus on developing investable projects around these environmental markets to help grow the restoration economy. We’ll partner with landholders and Indigenous groups to share the benefits of greater investment for regenerative farming and managing Country.

Working with landholders to regenerate degraded land, as we’ve done here at Landers Creek by rebuilding eroding gullies and re-establishing groundcover, provides a slew of benefits for both people and nature. Credit Toby Peet / Story in Progress.

Greening Australia is calling for catalytic investment from the public and private sectors to drive Reef Aid’s proven solutions at scale.

We need to raise $62 million by 2025 for Greening Australia’s work towards the Reef-safe targets, scaling to an overall $289 million investment to achieve our 2030 goals and help safeguard the Great Barrier Reef for future generations.

We can’t do it alone.

Taking action on climate change and water quality can’t wait. The Reef can’t wait. The scale of this challenge means we must collaborate for impact.

As part of a Reef-wide community of action, we are continually adding more to our knowledge about the Reef’s diverse ecosystem, and how it can be helped by what we do on the land.

We invite as many people as possible to join these efforts. Working together, we can build the projects and attract the investment needed to give the Great Barrier Reef – and all our vulnerable ecosystems – the best chance to be resilient to, and recover from, climate impacts now and into the future.

Saving the Reef starts here.

Greening Australia welcomes offers of partnership and support from solution-focused individuals, businesses and governments that share our vision for a low-carbon planet, have a demonstrable commitment to addressing and acting on critical environmental issues, and are ready to embrace new ways of working to create a sustainable future. If you’d like to talk to us about how we could work together, please contact us!