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Scientists: scrapping coal projects needed to protect Great Barrier Reef

The Australian government’s steadfast support for coal mining is looking increasingly foolhardy this week, with scientists warning that coal expansion is incompatible with a healthy Great Barrier Reef, and China’s declining appetite for the fossil fuel showing that economic ruin could also be in store for those obsessed with coal.

With a potential in-danger listing for the Great Barrier Reef looming at the June meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, both the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS) and the Australian government released reports over the weekend.

Flanked by the “Minister called the Minister for the Environment” Greg Hunt, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the Government would put $100 million into improving water quality as part of its 2050 long-term sustainability plan.

However, while offering some improvements on its draft plan, the final has been dubbed a woefully inadequate “roadmap to Great Barrier grief” – an assessment supported by the ACRS reef report that says if mining and port expansion projects go ahead there will be permanent damage to the reef.

It is impossible to adequately protect the Great Barrier Reef while expanding the coal industry. When burned, the coal produced from the nine proposed mines in the Galilee Basin will emit an estimated 705m tonnes of carbon dioxide at capacity. If it were a country, the basin would be the world’s seventh largest emitter.

Coral bleaching, ocean acidification, coal dust, declining water quality, dredging, increasing shipping traffic and more are already having a dire impact on the Reef.

The only hope for it is reducing industrialisation, so the choice is either developing Galilee coal, or the Great Barrier Reef’s survival, not both.

“Billions not millions are needed to save the reef. Considering the reef will generate $30 billion for the economy over the next five years, a much more substantial investment from the Federal Government is not unreasonable. We repeat our call for a federal ban to cover the entire World Heritage Area because that would provide the strongest level of protection. It’s critical that we see a ban implemented before the World Heritage Committee meets in three months’ time.” WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.

The Government’s 2050 sustainability plan for the reef admits that “climate change is the most significant threat”, but it has committed only $100 million to improving water quality in the GBR marine park area. To put this in perspective: it is still spending $250 million on school chaplains.

The government’s lacklustre commitment to protecting the GBR is true to form given its commitment to coal exports, totally inadequate five percent emissions reduction target, and fractionally small investment in reef protection (especially after budget cuts to reef protection programmes and bodies). Experts say with current efforts, the government may not be able to avoid a UNESCO in-danger listing, or terminal decline.

“A broad range of policies should be urgently put in place as quickly as possible to reduce Australia’s record high per capita carbon emissions to a much lower level,” the report states. Such policies are inconsistent with opening new fossil fuel industries like the mega coalmines of the Galilee Basin. Doing so would generate significant climate change that will permanently damage the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef.” The ACRS report.

Meanwhile, as State and Federal governments pretend they can have both, there’s news from China that Shenhua, the world’s largest coal company, is predicting a 10 per cent cut in its coal sales in 2015.

Both China and India are also seeking to dramatically expand wind and solar energy and displace coal. This all shows that the risks being taken on the future of the GBR could be for markets that may not exist in coming years.

Top image: Coral Garden (Richard Ling)

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