“Game Over” for the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef will suffer irreparable damage by 2030 unless radical action is taken to reduce carbon emissions and the impact of industrialization, a report compiled by WWF has warned. Part of this year’s Earth Hour Initiative, the report – entitled Lights Out For The Reef – warns that port expansion projects and further increase in the earth’s temperature of only 2 Celsius degrees would mean “game over” for the Great Barrier Reef, home to some of the greatest natural biodiversity on the planet.

“This is not a hunch or alarmist rhetoric by green activists,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and co-author of the report, “it is the conclusion of the world’s most qualified coral reef experts.”

Photo Credits: qldconservation.org.au
Photo Credits: qldconservation.org.au

Aside from the obvious longer-term trends in global warming triggered by an increase in carbon emissions, rapid industrialization along Australia’s eastern seaboard presents the most immediate threat to the survival of the reef. Environment minister, Greg Hunt, has approved several major port expansion and mining projects in Queensland, all of which fall in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. These include the port expansion at Abbot Point, which will require the dredging and dumping of 3 million tonnes of silt and spoil onto the reef, a similar port expansion project at Dudgeon Point, and the Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Project – commissioned by Indian mining giant Adani – which plans to develop a 60 million tonnes per annum thermal coal mine in the north Galilee Basin, and which will predominantly service the Indian market. Approval was also given to a new processing plant for coal seam gas (CSG) on Curtis Island, which would require the dredging of 1.4 million cubic meters at Port Curtis and the mouth of the Calliope River.

Fight for the Reef-a partnership between WWF Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society–has warned that “the Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world. But it is under threat from the most widespread, rapid and damaging set of industrial developments in Queensland’s history”. It has suggested that the Queensland Government has fast-tracked these mega port development in order to create “a shipping superhighway”.

It is the AP-X coal terminal development project at Abbot Point, however, which has elicited the most singular and vocal opposition from academics, activists, conservationists, opposition groups, politicians, and scientists alike. In recent months, Abbot Point has been transformed into a consistent source of controversy and embarrassment for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his environment minister, Greg Hunt. In December, plans were approved for the $6.2 billion expansion project at the extant deep-water port.  The project would see four extra coal terminals built on top of the existing infrastructure, worth around $2 billion annually, as well as supporting the development of further mining projects in the Bowen, Surat, and Galilee Basins.

At the end of January, the authority endorsed a permit for expansion with 47 conditions attached, including measures to minimise impact on biodiversity (particularly coral), a long-term water quality monitoring plan extending five years after the disposal activity is completed, and the prevention of any harm to environmental, cultural and heritage values of any areas 20 kilometres beyond the disposal site. The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, the company behind the port expansion, assured those with concerns that the necessary dredging will have minimal environmental impact, perhaps with the potential for the water to go cloudy for a while.

Yet, only months before the release of documents approving the plans, a draft report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) had warned that the dredging and dumping of 3 million tonnes of marine silt and spoil in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park waters posed an “unacceptable social and environmental risk”. In a series of draft documents dating from August 2012, the report advised the environment department not to approve the dredging of Abbot Point, finding that the coral reef, sea-grass meadows, and threatened species – including dwindling dugong and turtle populations – could be at risk if the plan went ahead. It also found that the assessment of the area likely to be affected was “substandard and possibly under-representative”. The report – obtained last month by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information law – upon which the approval of the port expansion critically hinged, was never submitted to the delegate in charge.

Photo Credits: Demotix.com
Photo Credits: Demotix.com

Across Australia, activists and opposition groups dissented en masse against the planned port expansions along the Queensland coastline, complaining that the projects pose a real threat to the survival and sustainability of the reef and levying charges against government ministers and corporate stakeholders of misrepresentation of the potential environmental impact. Many have pointed out that the Reef is a $6 billion tourism industry, creating 60,000 jobs.

Greenpeace campaigner, Louise Matthiesson, has publicly raised concerns about the federal government’s “stewardship” of the reef since they agreed to a strategic assessment in 2011 and has challenged the Abbott government with “put[ting] other interests ahead of the health of this world heritage jewel.” Indeed, among other high-profile opposition groups, Greenpeace Australia-Pacific has called on the environment minister, Greg Hunt, to revoke the approvals and ban dumping of dredge spoil in reef waters. Patently, it seems that the rhetoric of opposition groups has begun to have its intended impact. On 4 March, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and other organisations celebrated as the Federal Senate voted against dumping dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef’s waters, passing a motion calling for the reversal of the terminal expansion at Abbot Point.

The struggle for the future of the Great Barrier Reef is, however, far from resolved; nor is it solely a concern for Australians. This year’s WWF Earth Hour Initiative – to be held on 29 March – will focus on the impact of climate change and industrialization upon the Great Barrier Reef. More pressingly, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has expressed its own concerns and has asked the Australian and Queensland governments to compile a report on improving management of the reef. The Committee meets in Qatar this June and, without substantial progress, the Great Barrier Reef could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The message is clear: high levels of carbon emissions, global warming, and the continuing industrialization of the Queensland coastline still threaten the survival of the coral reef and the biodiversity of species which depend on it. In the words of WWF-Australia Reef Campaign Director Richard Leck: “We’re going backwards on the reef—that’s the sad truth.”


For more information on Earth Hour 2014, here’s a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DK7AX3QkH64

And for any conservation-minded folk who want to take control of climate change before it is too late, follow this link: http://yourpower.panda.org/


Jamie Pinnock


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