Why the Great Barrier Reef is "too big to fail"

A$56 billion valuation put on the under-threat ecosystem...

Why the Great Barrier Reef is "too big to fail"

Heart Reef in the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. Since 1981 the Great Barrier Reef is registered as UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Picture by: Holger Leue/DPA/PA Images

The Great Barrier Reef is worth nearly €38 billion (A$56bn), according to the first study on the ecosystem's "economic, social and icon value".

That's more than 12 Sydney Opera Houses – or represents over four times the length of the Great Wall of China in A$100 notes, if you want to get abstract.

Deloitte Access Economics has declared it to be a "treasure that is too big to fail", having assessed that it supported 64,000 jobs and contributed A$6.4bn to the Australian economy in 2015-16 alone.

Most of the jobs came from tourism activities, with the remainder in fishing, recreational and scientific sectors.

The largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef is over 25 million years old and is as big in size as Japan, and bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands put together. Comprising hundreds of thousands of marine and coral species, its 2,300 kilometres span can be seen from space.

The report's lead author John O'Mahony said that, whilst all this meant the Reef was "priceless and irreplaceable", they had been able to examine it as an asset "that has incredible value on multiple fronts – from its biodiversity and job creating potential to its support for critical industries and standing among international visitors to Australia."

Showing its economic import, Deloitte Access Economics hopes, will properly highlight why the Reef – which is facing extinction due to coral bleaching – should be given even greater priority by all citizens, businesses and levels of government.


Deloitte Access Economics

The annual employment supported by the Great Barrier Reef is more than most of Australia’s major banks, and many corporations including the likes of Qantas and Deloitte Australia.

Splitting the A$56bn asset value down into its parts:

  • Australians who have visited the Reef as tourists – on their honeymoon, on a family holiday, on a bucket-list trip – derive A$29bn in value
  • Australians that have not yet visited the Reef – but value knowing that it exists – derive A$24bn in value
  • Australians that are recreational users of the Reef – going to the beach, taking the boat out, diving on the weekends – derive A$3bn in value.

These figures are estimates based on reasonable assumptions about the length of analysis and the ‘discount rate’ – how much we value the Reef in the future. Varying these produces a range of A$37bn to A$77bn.

The estimates do not include quantified estimates of the value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners place on the Reef.

The Deloitte Access Economics study also surveyed people's attitude towards the Great Barrier Reef.

Two-thirds of Australian and international respondents were prepared to pay to protect it. Of these almost 1,000 respondents:

  • 61% alluded to its importance to the planet
  • 59% felt future generations should be able to visit it
  • 59% cited its importance to biodiversity
  • 52% felt it was morally and ethically right to pay for its protection

Reports of the Reef's death last year were somewhat exaggerated to put its protection on the agenda, but scientists have declared as recently as April that the window of opportunity to save it is "closing quite rapidly". 

Aerial surveys of the region have revealed that two-thirds of Australia's massive reef system has been hit by 'severe' coral bleaching this year.

Bleaching occurs when coral is 'stressed', which is often caused when the water temperature becomes particularly hot. Such abnormal conditions cause the coral to 'expel' tiny and colourful algae known as zooxanthellae.

In favourable conditions, the algae produce food for the coral through photosynthesis. However, in the absence of the algae, coral turns white and 'bleaches'.

Researchers say the latest 'back-to-back' bleaching event stretches for 1,500 km and has left only the southern third of the reef unscathed. It is the second year in the row the reef has experienced severe bleaching.