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Australia PM promises $700 mln more to protect Great Barrier Reef

epa09359487 (FILE) - Tropical fish swim along the edges of a coral reef off Great Keppel Island, Queensland, Australia, 25 November 2016 (reissued 23 July 2021). The Great Barrier Reef was not classified as 'in danger' and remains a UN World Heritage site until further consideration in February 2022, a committee decided on 23 July 2021. EPA-EFE/DAN PELED AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

SYDNEY, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday promised a further A$1 billion ($703 million) to protect the Great Barrier Reef to support thousands of tourism jobs, just months out from a federal election.

The reef, one of Australia’s best-known natural attractions but under threat from global warming, has been a lightning rod for criticism of the ruling conservative coalition’s support for fossil fuels.

Morrison, already under pressure over his handling of the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreak fuelled by the Omicron variant, said the investment will help protect about 64,000 jobs in Queensland that depend on the reef.

The northeastern state will be a major battleground when Morrison goes to the polls by May, seeking a fourth consecutive term for his party. His conservative coalition currently holds 23 of the state’s 30 lower house seats in Parliament.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The additional funding to be used over the next nine years will add to an existing A$2 billion package designed to shield the reef from environmental threats over the next three decades.

Made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching for 2,300 km (1,430 miles), the Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half its coral over three decades with marine heatwaves triggering three major bleaching events in the past five years.

More than half of the new funds will be used to improve water quality by preventing land erosion and limiting nutrient and pesticides runoff from farms. The rest will be used to target invasive species and for monitoring systems.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it was “astounding” to see the government planning to allocate more funds while ignoring climate change.

Morrison has steadfastly ruled out tougher action on greenhouse gas emissions, arguing it would cost jobs, and has ruled out strengthening Australia’s 2030 emissions target.

Opposition Labor described the funding as an election stunt.

“The government has left tourism businesses in far north Queensland in the lurch, now with 5 minutes to an election campaign, they want to pretend they care,” Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers told reporters.

The reef came close to being listed as an endangered World Heritage Site by the United Nations last year. After intense lobbying by Australia, the U.N. panel deferred a vote until early 2022.

By Renju Jose.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Richard Pullin).

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