Coal and gas developments proposed in Queensland are putting Australia's Great Barrier Reef at risk, says a report by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The report, released on June 1, said there were “a number of developments that, were they to proceed, would provide the basis to consider the inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger”.
This is a serious warning that could risk Queensland's tourism industry, which relies heavily on the reef. The report said “decisive action is required to secure its long-term conservation. The rapid increase of coastal developments, including ports infrastructure, is of significant concern.”
The developments referred to are part of a huge expansion in coal and gas exports linked to several mega mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. As well as the mines, there are also plans for a new 495 kilometre railway from central Queensland to Abbot Point on the coast, new port facilities and up to 10,000 export ships travelling through the reef every year.
The report said 70% of development proposals over the past decade that could affect the reef were approved. The high rate of approvals is accelerating and the report noted a particular “substantial and consistent increase” in coal and liquefied natural gas exports since 2008.
The report calls on the Queensland government to cease all new port developments.
It said: “It is essential that the State Party applies a highly precautionary approach to consenting new coastal and port development that might affect the property. Such an approach implies that the State Party should not permit any new port of development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the property.”
The Queensland Resources Council responded to the report on June 4 in a media release that disputed Greenpeace’s figure of 10,000 ships passing through the reef annually. It said: “The real numbers are expected to be one ship every two hours travelling in the reef area.”
Both the previous state Labor government and the current Liberal-National state government strongly back the coal and gas projects. Premier Campbell Newman said: "We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that."
But protection of the reef is the responsibility of the federal government. On June 7, the federal government suspended approval of the $6.4 billion Alpha coalmine, owned by Gina Rinehart. It had been given approval by the state government just a week earlier. This was the first of central Queensland's mega mines to be approved and would drive much of the development along the coast.
Environment minister Tony Burke said the project's approval had been a “shambolic joke”, and did not meet environmental standards. Opposition leader Tony Abbott condemned Labor's “green veto” over Queensland's coalmines, and said “it's very important that we do expand”.
The federal government also announced the creation of big new marine reserves around Australia on June 14.
This was welcomed by many environmental organisations. But Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University said in an article on The Conversation website on June 14 that “major threats to one iconic marine area, the Great Barrier Reef, are land-based – mining, coastal development, and agricultural run-off. The marine park network will do nothing to diminish these threats.”
Activist organisations GetUp! and Greenpeace have been running a campaign to bring public attention to the expansion of coalmining in Queensland and stop approval of these projects.
Together with Bank Track, they ran a full page ad in a recent edition of the Indian newspaper The Financial Times that warned anyone considering coal export investment would be fought at every step.
Making reference the UNESCO report, the ad said: “Expect delays from environmental protest and landowner opposition across mines, railways and ports. Over 100,000 people have signed petitions against new coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef and a recent national poll found that 79% have expressed concerns about the creation of the world’s largest coal ports next to the Great Barrier Reef.”
Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan said in response to GetUp’s ads: "I think that's deplorable and it should be condemned, and I do condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
UNESCO also recognised that the reef is under threat from climate change. The report said other pressures on the reef should be reduced to make it easier for it to adapt to climate change. It urged a strategic assessment between the state and federal governments that creates a long-term plan for the sustainable development and protection of the reef.