20201014 barrier reef
Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef Image Credit: AFP

Sydney: Australia unveiled a billion-dollar package to protect the climate-ravaged Great Barrier Reef on Friday, hoping to prevent the vast network of corals from being removed from UNESCO's World Heritage list.

Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison announced the Aus$1 billion (US$700 million) nine-year plan months after narrowly avoiding the reef being placed on UNESCO's "in danger" list.

"We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy," Morrison said.

The move comes ahead of a general election expected in May, when Morrison will have to win key Queensland seats near the reef to remain in power.

When the UN previously threatened to downgrade the reef's World Heritage listing in 2015, Australia created a "Reef 2050" plan and poured billions of dollars into protection.

The measures are believed to have arrested the pace of decline, but much of the world's largest reef system has already been damaged.

A recent study found bleaching had affected 98 percent of the reef since 1998, leaving just a fraction of it untouched.

The Morrison government's support for coal and reluctance to tackle climate change has seen the party bleed support in major cities and prompted the emergence of a string of electoral challenges from climate-focused independents.

Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of action to limit climate change, having experienced a string of warming-worsened disasters from bushfires to droughts and floods.

A 2021 poll by Sydney's Lowy Institute found 60 percent of Australians believed "global warming is a serious and pressing problem."

Eight in ten Australians supported a net-zero emissions target by 2050, which the government reluctantly adopted ahead of a landmark United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland last year.

One of the world's biggest exporters of coal and gas, Australia's economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Its political parties also receive significant funds from coal and gas-linked donors.