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[SYDNEY] Australia's plan to rescue the beleaguered Great Barrier Reef has been set back at least two decades after the fragile ecosystem suffered its worst-ever bleaching last year, experts said Friday.
The vast coral reef - which provides a tourism boon for Australia - is under pressure from agricultural run-off, the crown-of-thorns starfish, development and climate change.
Last year swathes of coral succumbed to devastating bleaching, due to warming sea temperatures, and the reef's caretakers have warned it faces a fresh onslaught in the coming months.
Canberra updated the UN's World Heritage committee on its "Reef 2050" rescue plan in December, insisting the site was "not dying" and laying out a strategy for incremental improvements to the site.
But an independent report commissioned by the committee concluded that the government had little chance of meeting its own targets in the coming years, adding that the "unprecedented" bleaching and coral die-off in 2016 was "a game changer".
"Given the severity of the damage and the slow trajectory of recovery, the overarching vision of the 2050 Plan... is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades," the report said.
Last year's bleaching killed two-thirds of shallow-water corals in the north of the 2,300-kilometre (1,400-mile) long reef, although central and southern areas escaped with less damage.
The government has pledged more than Aus$2.0 billion (US$1.5 billion) to protect the reef over the next decade, but researchers noted a lack of available funding, with many of the plan's actions under-resourced.
The latest assessment comes after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority warned the Queensland State government of an "elevated and imminent risk" of mass-bleaching this year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
With heavy use of coal-fired power and a relatively small population of 24 million, Australia is considered one of the world's worst per capita greenhouse gas polluters.
Researchers highlighted that the government's rescue plan does not do enough to address climate change, noting that "new coal mines pose a serious threat" to the reef's heritage area.
While the plan has a strong focus on improving water quality, environmental groups too have been critical of the government for inactivity on global warming.
"These independent experts have given UNESCO a far more accurate assessment of progress than the rose-coloured-glasses version released by the Australian and Queensland Governments late last year," said World Wildlife Fund Australia head of oceans Richard Leck.
But Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg told the ABC the government had been "very successful to date" in implementing the reef's 2050 plan.
"Climate change is the number one threat to the reef together with water quality issues," he said, citing the government's ratification of the Paris agreement, the world's first universal climate pact, as part of the "broader" efforts to reduce stress on the reef.