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Issue #1593      May 15, 2013

UN warns Great Barrier Reef under threat

The World Heritage Committee (WHC) is considering placing the magnificent Great Barrier Reef in the “endangered” category, because of the adverse impact of proposed new ports and coal loading facilities, which would add to the current pollution problems of soil, fertiliser and pesticides from coastal farms and developments. Each year 16 tonnes of pesticides are dumped in the reef lagoon and herbicides have been detected 15 kilometres offshore.

The WHC had given the state and federal governments until 2015 to improve their act, but after an international inspection of the reef in 2012 it decided to make an early declaration of its findings.

Its latest report has recognised the federal government’s contribution to improving the reef’s condition. Nevertheless, it has warned that these efforts are insufficient, and it wants a policy statement that the government will make “an urgent commitment to ensure that no new port development or associated port infrastructure are permitted outside the existing and long-established areas within or adjacent to the property.

“ … While [Australia] has not approved port developments outside existing major port areas, there is no clear commitment towards limiting port development to existing port areas.”

Actually, there are now 43 proposals with potential adverse impacts on the reef, and none has yet been ruled out by the state or federal governments. One includes large industrial construction at Keppel Bay, and construction of new landing facilities on Balaklava Island near Rockhampton, capable of exporting 35 million tonnes of coal annually. There are also proposed new ports at Fitzroy and Wongai which could load another 23.5 million tonnes annually.

The projects are primarily concerned with loading and shipping coal, but now there are added fears about the proposed construction of a new port for the transport of uranium.

Apart from the danger of coal pollution during processing and loading operations, the UN is also concerned that most of the freighters sail through passages across the reef. One Chinese freighter became stuck on the reef recently, causing massive damage across a wide area of coral formations, and it narrowly avoided losing its cargo or even the whole ship.

The report discusses Australia’s “limited progress” in protecting the reef, noting: “The World Heritage Centre and [the International Union for the Conservation of Nature] recommend that the committee consider the Great Barrier Reef for inscription on the list of World Heritage in Danger … in absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment on these priority issues.”

According to World Wildlife Fund spokesman Richard Leck the report “… sharply criticises the Queensland government for weakening environmental protection for the reef by allowing further land clearing of vegetation along rivers leading to the reef and allowing dredge spoil to be dumped in coastal waters.”

The performance of the state and federal governments will be discussed at the WHC’s next meeting in Phnom Penh next month. The committee has now agreed to defer making a final decision on declaring the reef “endangered” until February, to take account of the latest scientific information on the reef’s condition.

Parliamentary reactions

The Queensland government reacted angrily to the WRC report, saying it had done more in a year than its Labor predecessors had done in two decades, and that it had taken the expansion of the Abbott Point coal port off the agenda and committed $35 million per year to water quality programs.

But that’s not the point. The issue involved is not whether the Newman government did better or not than other governments, but whether it has done enough to protect the reef – and according to the scientific assessment on which the WRC report is based, it clearly has not.

Nor has the Gillard government. As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, Australia is obliged to conserve places for which it is responsible on the World Heritage List. Failure to do so would place the reef among the most shameful examples of nature conservation failure, including the polluted Florida everglades and the shrunken Sumatra rainforest.

A bill proposed by Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters would adopt the WHC’s recommendations as law. “The Newman and Gillard governments have continued to fast-track mega industrial ports alongside the reef. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef must be beyond politics,” she said.

Unfortunately the Gillard government is unlikely to support the bill because it does not want to tackle the matter as a hot election issue, and deferral of the WRC’s final decision on the “endangered” listing may have saved it from having to do so.

On the other hand, it may not have. The states have the power to approve mining or development applications, and the Newman government is in a hurry to serve the interests of the mining industry.

The federal government has constitutional powers to override the states in cases where approval would violate our international obligations, and past federal governments have intervened to protect places of great natural significance, for example to prevent sand mining on Fraser Island and the damning of Tasmania’s Franklin River.

The Gillard government could certainly intervene to protect the reef, but it may have to make a decision to do so prior to the elections if the Queensland government decides to grant approval for some or all of the current proposals.

The bigger picture

The most significant issue regarding Queensland coastal development is actually far greater than its impact on the reef. The coal shipped from the state’s ports is burnt in furnaces and power stations all over the world, emitting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere are altering the climate, and causing – among other things – warming and acidification of the ocean, which in turn is damaging the Great Barrier Reef.

As Colin Hunt, University of Queensland lecturer in economics has pointed out:

“ … ironically, only coal mining and transport – not coal burning – are being assessed for their environmental impact.

“The proponents of coal mines and port developments are supposed to include socio-economic assessments in their environmental statements. If these were done properly, there would be an assessment of external costs, including costs to the world at large, as well as to Australia.

“An external cost of Australian export coal is … imposed globally by emissions when it is burnt. The greenhouse gas emissions of export coal are already greater than Australia’s total emissions from all sources. … Australian coal exports are forecast to more than double by 2035, and so will the consequential emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent.”

But how can we put a figure on the cost of climate change, which unless mitigated will involve the global inundation of low-lying coastal cities and settlements, a rising incidence of heatstroke, bushfires and tropical diseases, the drastic loss of marine life and biodiversity, and famines and droughts on a massive scale?

Australia is now the worst per capita greenhouse gas emitter, but in absolute terms is also the 15th biggest emitter out of 295. And part of the larger, long-term cost of climate change will be imposed by the proposed port developments along the coast adjacent to the wonderful but terribly threatened Great Barrier Reef.   

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