UNESCO is set to debate whether Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be listed as endangered. Ahead of the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, which begins in Doha, Qatar, on June 15, environmentalists are lobbying hard and gathering support to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.
There has been worldwide outrage at plans to dump millions of tonnes of dredge spoil within the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and further damage the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), which is supposed to protect the reef, decided on January 31 to issue a permit for the dumping of three million cubic metres of spoil about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Abbot Point on the Queensland Coast.
The dredging would be done to allow transport ships into the Abbot Point port. Several companies would use the port to export coal reserves from the Galilee Basin. Most of the transported coal would be exported to China.
In addition to the Abbot Point expansion, there are plans for four other mega ports along the Queensland coast, mainly in areas near the reef. Expansions are due to be allowed at Gladstone, Hay Point, Mackay, and Townsville. There is serious doubt about whether any of these expansions are even financially viable.
Campaigners against the expansions say 140 million tonnes of dredge spoil would be dumped into heritage waters and 7,000 industrial ships would cross the reef each year.
Such organisations as Greenpeace, WWF, and GetUp! have launched petitions and other actions in defence of the reef. More than 181,000 people have already signed the Greenpeace “Save the Reef” petition and the one launched by GetUp! has more than 263,000 signatures.
The reef is already a listed World Heritage Site, but there is concern about the condition of the coral. Scientists have already said the reef is in decline.
Queensland’s Environment Minister Andrew Powell claims, however, that the reef is “on the pathway to long-term improvement”.
UNESCO describes the Great Barrier Reef as a site of remarkable variety and beauty. “It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc.
“It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction.”
Lobbying for Doha
Ahead of Doha, an online voting campaign has been organised by the Fight for the Reef campaign, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and WWF-Australia. The tally will be presented to UNESCO ambassadors before they cast their votes. People in 185 countries have voted already.
Campaigners have also organised a global Social Media Storm for June 16. People are being urged to tweet and post messages using the hashtag #FightfortheReef.
The Queensland federal government, meanwhile, will be pressing the heritage committee to water down the draft recommendation, which would open the way to an in-danger listing in 2015.
In a recent report, UNESCO said it noted the Abbot Point dumping plan “with concern”. The plan was approved despite an indication that less impacting disposal alternatives might exist, the report stated.
It said a long-term plan for sustainable development, due to be completed by Australia by 2015, had to result in concrete and consistent management measures sufficiently robust to ensure the overall conservation of the reef.
Major drivers of reef decline “such as water quality and climate change, and the need to constrain coastal development and associated activities” needed to be addressed, UNESCO said. Given “significant threats” to the reef, it should be considered for inclusion on the endangered list.
Felicity Wishart from the marine conservation society said: “The draft UNESCO recommendation for the Doha meeting, if adopted as is by the World Heritage Committee will put the spotlight on the Australian government to significantly improve its management of the reef if it’s to avoid an in-danger listing in 2015.
Wishart says the federal government has been fast-tracking some of the most damaging developments the reef had ever seen. “It has rammed through parliament amendments to the State Development and Public Works Act to start the process of dismantling protection for the reef.
“It will become harder for people to challenge damaging developments and easier for the mining industry to damage the reef.”
Already, several major companies and Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank, have pulled out of the Abbot Point project. The British multinational banking and financial services company HSBC has also said it will not fund the scheme.
The companies do not want their images to be tarnished by involvement in destruction of the reef. The pull-out decisions come after intense lobbying by environmentalists .
Deutsche Bank has said it will not finance the Abbot Point scheme. HSBC has not as yet received any proposals to finance the port expansion, but has said it would be extraordinarily unlikely for it to go anywhere near the project.
Both HSBC and Deutsche Bank cite the lack of consensus between UNESCO and the Australian government over the coal port expansion’s impacts on the reef.
HSBC has also referred to the Equator Principles – a risk management framework adopted by financial institutions to determine, assess, and manage environmental and social risk in projects.
“Given that we have seen Deutsche Bank and HSBC link a decision not to fund Abbot Point to UNESCO’s concerns, the stakes are now very high. A shift to a softer position by the World Heritage Committee would cast a dark shadow over the World Heritage brand,” Wishart said.
The Deutsche Bank pull-out follows the withdrawal of major companies over the past two years. These included Rio Tinto in 2012 and the Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals and petroleum company BHP in 2013. The Australian multinational property and infrastructure company Lend Lease and the mining giant Anglo American pulled out in 2014.
One of the companies still involved in the expansion – the Indian firm GVK, which is partnered with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting – insists that the Deutsche Bank pull-out will make no difference to the project. The Indian company Adani Enterprises is the only other company still involved.
Allegations against Adani
GetUp! Action for Australia has released a video about Adani Enterprises, alleging that the company has been involved in bribery, corruption, and illegal construction, and has destroyed protected environments.
“Adani still needs to borrow billions of dollars to make this project happen, and we need investors to know exactly who they’d be dealing with,’ GetUp! states.
In the video, GetUp! says that an investigation by the Karnataka anti-corruption ombudsman discovered Adani was involved in large scale illegal exports of iron ore. The report found that Adani was bribing officials to receive “undue favour for illegal exports”.
Adani is also accused of illegally destroying protected mangroves when constructing its Mundra port. The investigative committee found Adani was “less than serious” about complying with the environmental conditions placed on the approval for the port. They inadequately managed the release of fly ash, and failed to take even basic steps to prevent salinity groundwater from leaking into the local environment.
The committee also said Adani had built an airstrip and aerodrome without environmental approval.
Defenders of the Abbot Point dumping decision say the dredge material is sand, silt, and clay, and will be dumped onto bare seabed. Those defending the reef say that doesn’t mean it won’t be damaged, and there are huge doubts over what will actually be dumped.
Already, investigations into dredging carried out at Gladstone Harbour to facilitate the export of liquefied natural gas show serious environmental damage. Research carried out by James Cook University found that the dredging caused metals to be dispersed from the seabed and contributed to an “unusually large number of turtle strandings and mortalities”.
The report states: “It is likely that the elevated metal levels found in stranded turtles resulted from metals mobilised through dredging and the leakage of the bunded area into which dredged spoil was placed.”
The Queensland government points to its decision to prohibit dredging outside “priority port areas” for the next decade, but Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters has described the new “faux restriction” on dredging as useless.
“It won’t apply to any of the damaging dredging already applied for, which is the very dredging that UNESCO was concerned about,” she said, adding that dredging would continue at 20 ports. “This is atrocious news for the Great Barrier Reef.”
Wishart says the new policy won’t stop a single port development or dredging proposal planned along the Queensland coast. The coastline along the reef is being industrialised, she says.
In its continuing efforts to defend its position, the Australian government has just released a report card on action taken to improve reef water quality since 2009.
Andrew Powell said pesticide loads had been reduced by 28 percent across the whole reef catchment and nitrogen had been reduced by 16 percent. He conceded, however, that the overall health of the reef still needed more work.
“The outlook in this report still suggests that it’s poor and that is consistent with the fact we’ve had many decades now of natural disasters, but also agricultural practices and run-off.”
The minister will be taking the report to Doha, where he will argue against an in-danger listing. He claims the real causes of concern for the reef are storms and cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching and said the government was addressing these problems.
The government scorecard deals only with water quality issues, not planned port developments. A scorecard released by WWF-Australia and the marine conservation society is more comprehensive and addresses threats from port development, dredging, and increased shipping.
“Our assessment shows the Australian and Queensland governments have failed to make good progress or complete a single one of UNESCO’s requests,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.
“The World Heritage Committee wants a long-term plan and concrete action to protect the reef and instead the Australian government is washing its hands of responsibility for this national icon. It’s a huge concern in the lead up to Doha.”
At a recent forum about the reef, held in Brisbane, the director of WWF’s Global Marine Programme, John Tanzer, said the reef was still magnificent in many places, but its capacity to bounce back from pressures was being sorely tested.
“If you listen, you can hear the largest living ecosystem of the oceans struggling and groaning with the effort of dealing with the cumulative impacts that are now accelerating quickly.
“It’s so evident to all those who’ve seen the reef up close over the past four to five decades that the pressures associated with run-off, with habitat loss, coastal development, and over-fishing are cumulative and are in some cases increasing.”
Other pressures like climate change and the climb in ph levels were being exacerbated by major port expansions and associated developments, and by dredging, Tanzer said.
At Gladstone, about 21 million cubic metres had been dredged and more than four million cubic metres had been dumped at sea within the world heritage area.
“We know the result: sick fish, dead turtles, and fishermen launching a class action because they’re worried about their future income.”
The authorities say dredge spoil won’t be dumped directly onto coral, but, Tanzer says, dredge plumes can travel up to eighty kilometres, smothering and killing coral and sea grass.
“I believe very strongly that we have an international responsibility when it comes to protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef. If a wealthy nation like Australia can’t manage the Great Barrier Reef, what hope is there for other critical marine areas around the world?
“The reef is the jewel in the crown of marine areas. The dumping of dredge spoil in a world heritage area needs to stop now, and loss of critical habitats has to be reversed.”
Jo-Anne Bragg, the principal solicitor for the non-profit, non-governmental Queensland Environmental Defender’s Office said the Commonwealth’s delegation of environmental decision-making powers to the Queensland government was “bad news for the reef and bad news for the protection of all the other matters of national environmental significance”.
Bragg said several changes to State laws were further endangering the reef. She urged people to challenge proposed legislation that would severely restrict the public’s right to oppose plans for new mines. In nearly 90 percent of cases, only directly affected landholders would be able to object.
There are currently legal challenges to the Alpha and Carmichael coal mines, and the North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) is directly opposing the decision to dump dredge spoil from Abbot Point in the reef marine park.
The application to challenge the dumping decision has been filed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Brisbane under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 by lawyers from the environmental defenders office, acting for the NQCC.
Another case will be heard in the federal court from October 27 to 31. It is a challenge to the decision by federal environment minister Greg Hunt to approve the dredging at Abbot Point, and is spearheaded by the Mackay Conservation Group.
This will be a technical argument about whether Hunt got anything legally wrong when he gave his approval. “This is a really significant precedent case,” Bragg said. “What’s really exciting is it’s testing a provision in the Commonwealth legislation. There’s a mandatory prohibition in the legislation, which says the minister must not make a decision inconsistent with the world heritage obligations.”
“All boom, no benefit”
Laura Eadie is research director of the Centre for Policy Development’s sustainable economy programme, and author of the reports “Too Many Ports in a Storm: The risks of Queensland’s port duplication” and “All Boom, No Benefit?”
She says the reef is not only incredibly valuable ecologically, but it also supports a lot of economic activity in Queensland.
Mining, Eadie says, contributes only six percent to Queensland’s economic activity and three percent to employment, but is a big driver of exports. China is now Queensland’s biggest coal export market, outranking Japan.
There has been a sudden drop in coal prices, Eadie says, and China is capping its coal consumption and is starting to use more of its own sources.
“It’s likely that the proposed port expansions are no longer financially viable. If Queensland keeps on building ports and mines that don’t stack up financially, then there is a real risk of stranded assets. And the real losers are likely to be Queensland’s economy and jobs.”
The industry had expected a permanent boom in thermal coal, and port capacity rose by 60 percent between 2009 and 2012. “If all proposals were to go ahead, you’d see a tripling of Barrier Reef port capacity by 2025, with a sixfold increase at Abbot Point alone.”
Given the current and predicted levels of coal port utilisation, there is a big question mark over whether any of the proposed port expansions are really needed.
Eadie says no independent views are being put forward when decisions are taken about coal projections and port expansions. The mining industry, the government, and the ports corporations were operating in a very closed loop, with no financial transparency.
A complex ecological system
Tony Fontes, a diving instructor in the Whitsundays, said there was nowhere on the reef that dredge spoil can be dumped safely. “Unless we wise up, we’re not going to have a Great Barrier Reef, and I am wondering what the Whitsundays are going to look like.”
There were two other viable options for the Abbot Point dumping, Fontes said, but the cheapest one was chosen.
The reef, he says, is a complex system. It includes deep isolates where juvenile fish stop off and feed, which are now targeted for dredge spoil dumping, and sea grass that is a nursery for tiny fish and is scheduled to be heavily dredged.
About 700,000 people visit the Whitsundays every year. The reef earns Australia six billion dollars annually in income from tourism and provides jobs for about 66,000 people.
“This is not just an environmental issue,” Bragg said, “it’s also a matter of long-term public interest and public benefit.”
John Tanzer said the port expansion and dumping decisions were all about quick political fixes. “There is an overkill of political influence and spin.” He said people all around the globe were very concerned about what is happening on the reef. “The reef is of world importance.”
Director of the marine conservation society, Darren Kindleysides, added: “Fifty years ago, we faced a government hell-bent on developing the reef. There was strong local and community opposition to those plans. I hope and I strongly believe that, given the strength and public support that’s mobilising behind this campaign, in perhaps another fifty years people will be grateful that economists, scientists, lawyers, tourism operators, and the general public stood up for the reef once again.”
More reef statistics:
344,000 square kilometres in size
2,300 kilometres long
2,900 individual reefs
600 continental islands
400 species of coral
600 species of echinoderms
17 species of sea snakes
6 species of marine turtles
30 species of whales and dolphins
The Equator Principles form a management framework, adopted by financial institutions, for determining, assessing, and managing environmental and social risk in projects and is primarily intended to provide a minimum standard for due diligence to support responsible risk decision-making.