It’s not too late to save Great Barrier Reef from politicians
More bad news about Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef emerged this week. Two-thirds of its coral has now been bleached following the scorching summers of 2017 and 2016.
The scientific consensus is clear: the increased frequency of mass bleaching events is being driven by global warming – both directly by warming water and perhaps more indirectly by extreme weather that ravages the coral. The only way to save the precious remains of the reef is to rein in our carbon dioxide emissions.
So it might come as a surprise that the Australian government seems hell-bent on doing the exact opposite. On the same day the latest reef report card was released, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was in India finalising a deal with multinational conglomerate Adani to build the biggest coal mine in Australia – just 300 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef. Will this seal the reef’s fate for good?
Where there’s smoke
The emissions certainly won’t help. Coal from the A$22 billion (US$16.5 billion) Carmichael megamine will be transported by rail to the Abbot Point coal port in the central section of the reef and shipped to power stations in India. When burned, it will pump out 128 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – more than the annual output of New Zealand.
Even though the coal will be burned in India, the emissions will contribute to overall global warming and further damage the reef.
The coal will also have a more direct effect: coal dust blowing from shipments at Abbot Point is likely to poison nearby coral. Coal dust exposure can kill coral in as little as two weeks. And only last month, the terminal was blamed for leaking coal dust, contaminating the surrounding wetlands.
But the worst damage is likely to be from the linked expansion of the Abbot Point port, which will involve dredging 1.1 million cubic metres of seabed, which will choke nearby reefs as plumes of sediment prevent light from getting to the coral. It could also get into the gills of reef fish that are emerging as crucial to coral restoration.
When a senator from the Australian Greens party raised concerns about the recent mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in parliament, those from the ruling Liberal party told him he needed a hanky.
Ray of hope
The majority of Australians are opposed to the Carmichael mine on environmental grounds, even though it will create 1400 jobs and give a A$4 billion boost to the economy. There is a growing awareness that what coal would give, a dying tourism industry would swiftly take away.
Still, there is a ray of hope. Conservation organisations and Indigenous groups have launched at least 10 legal challenges against the mine. Although these have mostly failed, they have managed to continuously delay its construction since it was first proposed in 2010.
Although the Turnbull government is about to introduce legislation to overturn the latest obstruction, it’s possible that these delays will stall the plant for long enough to see India’s coal appetite wane.
Despite the Australian government’s insistence that India needs coal to power the lives of 100 million impoverished people, the Indian government has indicated that it will move away from fossil fuels. Last year, India announced a plan to harvest 60 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2027. The rapidly falling price of solar energy is making it an increasingly attractive prospect.
It may be too late to bring the Great Barrier Reef back to its former glory – but action on emissions could certainly save at least parts of this natural wonder. If, that is, we can find wily ways to thwart politicians’ short-term priorities.