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UNESCO’s warning has done little to turn Australia’s coal development around. Peter Asquith

Australia coy in report on heritage status of Great Barrier Reef

Australia has delivered an updated report on the state of conservation in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) that tip-toes around the politically charged issue of constraining major port expansions on the Queensland coast.

The report was required as a step in an ongoing international review of Australia’s management of the GBR.

The review is not considering removing the GBR from the World Heritage List.

The question the review is asking is whether the GBR should be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Entry on that list is an alarm bell warning of immediate threats to a World Heritage property.

Massive development for coal and LNG exports

The reason why alarm bells are ringing for the GBR is principally the scale and rapid pace of coastal development and shipping for coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

There are massive expansions of already major ports adjacent to the GBR currently planned or underway at Gladstone, Dalrymple Bay/Hay Point, and Abbot Point.

Major new coal export terminals are also proposed north of Gladstone at the mouth of the Fitzroy River, the Fitzroy Terminal Project and the Balaclava Island Coal Export Terminal.

In addition a new coal terminal known as the Wongai Project is proposed 320km north of Cairns in a near-pristine area.

Map of GBR World Heritage Area showing the three bulk coal ports (white) and major proposed new coal terminals (red). Adapted from GBRMPA

UNESCO & IUCN mission report sounds alarm

In early 2012 an international mission from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and IUCN visited Australia to assess the state of conservation of the GBR.

While the mission recommended that the GBR should not be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger at this stage, they expressed deep concern that:

In the immediate future … it is clear that the scale of coastal development currently being proposed and consented presents a significant risk to the [GBR], and that the scale and pace of development proposals appear beyond the capacity for independent, quality and transparent decision making.

Review by the World Heritage Committee

The World Heritage Committee accepted the mission’s recommendations in mid-2012.

It decided not to enter the GBR on the List of World Heritage in Danger at this stage.

It requested Australia report further developments and the results of a strategic assessment for its 2013 and 2015 meetings, when it will review the matter again.

Significantly, as part of its resolution, the Committee requested that Australia:

… not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the property …“

This is clearly aimed at the Balaclava Island Coal Export Terminal, the Fitzroy Terminal Project, and the Wongai Project.

Location of new coal terminals in largely undeveloped coastal areas north of Gladstone. Adapted from GoogleEarth

It is difficult to see how any approval can be given by Australia of these new major coal ports consistently with the recommendation from the World Heritage Committee.

This is very significant because these developments are arguably the most damaging of the proposed expansions due to their location in largely undeveloped or near-pristine areas.

Australia chooses to hear "no” as “maybe”

The updated status report just delivered by Australia coyly attempts to turn a “no” into a “maybe” in relation to port expansions outside of the existing and long-established major port areas.

Australia states in addressing this recommendation that it “understands and appreciates the concern of the Committee” but applicants have legal rights to have their proposals assessed and the government must continue to respect these rights.

Australia emphasises in the report the high standards of its national environmental laws and the fact that it is currently undertaking a strategic assessment of all development directly affecting the GBR.

There is some merit in these points as some projects are well assessed under Australian law. For instance, in 2008 a proposed new coal terminal in an undeveloped area adjacent to the GBR was rejected as “clearly unacceptable”. That decision survived a heated court challenge.

Yet at the heart of Australia’s response on this issue is a refusal, at least at this stage, to accept the World Heritage Committee’s categorical view that no new ports should be allowed adjacent to the GBR.

Talking about the elephant in the room

Australia acknowledges in its report the threat posed by climate change to the GBR and puts on a brave face emphasising its climate policies.

There is no acceptance that Australia’s climate policies are profoundly inadequate but it has become naive to expect governments will truly face the politically unpalatable reality of clearly unsustainable climate and energy policies.

Australia has, in effect, a de facto plan to destroy the GBR by mining and exporting all our coal and gas without requiring safe disposal of their emissions as a condition of sale.

When repeated by fossil fuel rich countries around the globe this puts the world on track for a mean global temperature rise of over 4°C. The GBR will be devastated well before we reach those levels.

It is ironic, in a very sad way, that the immediate threats of rapid port expansions to export more coal and LNG compound the long-term threat from climate change and ocean acidification that the emissions from these exports will contribute to.

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