Coal protest highlights danger to Great Barrier Reef

Aboriginal elders and residents oppose coal port expansion as Unesco mulls “in danger” status for unique coral ecosystem

Aboriginal elders protest on the Abbot Point site (

Aboriginal elders protest on the Abbot Point site (Airlie Bird)

By Megan Darby

Is the Great Barrier Reef in danger from planned coal ports on the Queensland coast?

After intensive lobbying from the Australian government, Unesco’s draft decision is not to add the unique coral ecosystem to its endangered list. But with the World Heritage Committee due to make a final decision next week, it faces mounting calls to reconsider.

Environmental lawyers are arguing the reef meets several of the criteria for an “in danger” listing. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of voices from Aboriginal elders to US president Barack Obama are raised in concern.

Protests have centred on the expansion of a port at Abbot Point. As well as turning the sensitive marine site into a major shipping route, it acts as a gateway for vast coal reserves. By opening up the Galilee Basin to the world market, it is set to unleash greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change – a deadly threat to coral.

‘Irreparable damage’

Today, it was the turn of 120 residents to declare their opposition, in a demo at the site.

“We’re here today standing up for the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and a safe climate future for our grandchildren,” said Sandra Williams.

A resident of Airlie Beach and tourism worker for 20 years, Williams added: “A vibrant tourism industry depends on a vibrant reef.

“The reef is suffering irreparable damage created by coastal industrialisation, including ports, and by climate change from increasing coal use.”

For Juru elder Carol Prior, it is about preserving her culture and heritage. ‘We are standing together, united as one, to protect Mother Earth,” she said.

Demonstrators on the Abbot Point site (Airlie Bird)

Demonstrators on the Abbot Point site (Airlie Bird)

Those local concerns have been echoed across the world, from President Obama to BBC veteran broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough.

In a speech at Brisbane University ahead of last November’s G20 summit, Obama linked the reef’s plight to climate change.

“The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened,” he said. “Worldwide, this past summer was the hottest on record. No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part.”

Attenborough said if the reef was lost, with its diverse water life, “the disaster would be just unspeakable”.

At the last count, 488,880 people had signed a WWF petition to save the reef. Australia’s 1 Million Women movement, which encourages energy saving, mustered up another 54,361.

Corals are vulnerable to changes in temperature, as well as pollution (Pic: U.S. Geological Survey)

Corals are vulnerable to changes in temperature, as well as pollution (Pic: U.S. Geological Survey)

Coral reefs worldwide are facing a mass die-off amid rising ocean temperatures – the third time on record it has happened on such a scale.

Scientists warn of a grim outlook for the colourful and diverse habitats if global warming is not kept in check.

The international goal is to limit average temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels, which means keeping 90% of Australia’s coal in the ground.

Keen to avoid the embarrassment of an “in danger” listing, the Australian government produced a plan to curb water pollution and over-fishing in the reef. The document was quiet on climate change.

A Freedom of Information request reveals it spent AU$220,000, mostly on travel, to convince Unesco this was enough.

FOI response – Unesco lobbying spend

It appears to have paid off: the UN body’s working group “notes with concern” that the outlook for the reef is “poor”, but stops short of recommending a change of status.

Researchers at Environmental Justice Australia and Earthjustice dispute this conclusion, saying the reef meets up to six out of eight of Unesco’s own criteria. Sites need only tick one of these boxes to make the endangered list.

“If the World Heritage system is to have any value, it must address the most serious threats to the most iconic examples of world heritage,” said Martin Wagner, attorney at US-based Earthjustice.

“If any site falls into this category, it is the threatened Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef on the planet and one of its richest and most complex ecosystems.”

Abbot Point port is a gateway for coal from the Galilee Basin (Pic: Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson)

Abbot Point port is a gateway for coal from the Galilee Basin
(Pic: Greenpeace/Tom Jefferson)

More broadly, campaigners say the government is refusing to face up to the climate impact of its support for coal.

“Rather than doing everything it can to save the Great Barrier Reef, the government is aggressively promoting coal port expansion,” says Jessica Panegyres of Greenpeace, “which poses direct threats to the reef and will drive climate change.”

The Abbot Point development is backed by Indian conglomerate Adani, to channel coal from its Carmichael mine to a fleet of power stations in India.

To date, 11 international banks have ruled out finance to the $16.5 billion project.

Adani has dismissed analyst warnings the project could be unviable amid falling coal prices and climate regulations.

Wooed by the promise of jobs and tax revenues, politicians have largely endorsed the bid to exploit Galilee Basin.

Report: Australia ‘overstated’ emissions to make climate target look ambitious

Australia’s climate sceptic national leadership is right behind the mining ventures. Prime minister Tony Abbott recently bragged about blocking “visually awful” wind farms and has proclaimed coal “good for humanity”.

At state level, Queensland’s Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk supports the “the responsible and sustainable development” of coal, although she has pledged not to subsidise it.

Only the Green Party has consistently fought the proposals. Responding to the draft Unesco decision, Green senator Larissa Waters urged the Abbott and Palaszczuk governments to stop the “reckless expansion” of coal ports.

“Climate change is the biggest facing the reef, and exporting hundreds of megatonnes of coal out through the reef will make it even worse,” she said.

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