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Is the Great Barrier Reef listing? The UN asks if we’re still heritage-worthy

Obtaining a World Heritage listing for a national asset is a source of great pride for any country. The Taj Mahal (1983), Borobudur (1991) and Uluru (2007) are examples where countries have obtained the…

UNESCO is reviewing whether more needs to be done to preserve the reef’s heritage listing. AAP

Obtaining a World Heritage listing for a national asset is a source of great pride for any country. The Taj Mahal (1983), Borobudur (1991) and Uluru (2007) are examples where countries have obtained the much coveted UNESCO inscription. Australia is justifiably proud of its heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, but this week the United Nations is visiting the reef to see whether the listing is still justified.

In return for a heritage listing, host countries are obliged to ensure “that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory” (Article 5, Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage).

It’s a pretty straight-forward bargain.

Protecting the reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was listed in 1981 after a tumultuous political row. The Conservative government of Jo Bjelke-Petersen had its sights set on exploiting oil and gas reserves suspected to exist within the Great Barrier Reef region. The Federal Whitlam government opposed the plan.

Drilling the reef became a major political issue between the Whitlam and the Bjelke-Petersen governments. It led to the Federal Government moving an act of Parliament to create the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975.

In 1975, the Federal Government chose environmental resources over fuel resources. The.Rohit/Flickr

The 1975 Act prohibits extracting minerals such as oil and gas within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But the marine park was much more than a mechanism to prevent mining. Today it stands as one of the most successful examples of the multi-use management of marine resources.

Once the park was set up, listing followed. The Great Barrier Reef was listed on the basis of its “exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”, and as an outstanding example “representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes”. This assessment is clear to anyone who visits the world’s largest continuous reef system. Anyone would be awestruck by its supreme beauty, biodiversity and best-practice management.

At the ‘81 listing, the world applauded and Australia took bows as one of the more progressive nations in the area of natural resource management.

Not so heritage-worthy anymore?

You might be surprised to learn, however, that the June 2011 minutes of the World Heritage Committee “[n]otes with extreme concern the approval of Liquefied Natural Gas processing and port facilities on Curtis Island within the property".

The Committee further requested “the Australian Government invite a reactive monitoring mission to visit the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site”.

This concern is so serious that to UNESCO officials will be travelling to the Great Barrier Reef this week to inspect what could be a major infringement of Australia’s promise to “ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory”.

Development is full-speed-ahead on Curtis Island. AAP

So, what has happened recently to besmirch our international reputation as a country dedicated to preserving the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef? Curiously, it involves the very same issue that underpinned why the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage listing were created in the first place.

As world demand for coal, gas and other fuels has escalated, pressure to tap reserves of these substances in central Queensland has increased. What was not so valuable 10 years ago now represents a huge economic opportunity for Queensland and large resource companies such as Santos, Origin and BHP Billiton. One has only to look at the price of gas which has tripled in WA and doubled in Queensland over the past decade to understand why a gas rush now exists across Queensland.

This has led to massive infrastructure investments to extract, transport and ship gas to the world. Gladstone - as Australia’s fourth largest port - has undergone a dramatic transformation. Gladstone Harbour has been extensively dredged as processing plants and shipping have expanded rapidly.

The shipping and dredging are partly to deal with the output of gas liquefaction plants established on Curtis Island. These plants are huge and obtrusive (about the size of four football fields) and have been established within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage zone. The establishment of these plants and possible disturbances to water quality in the area lie at the heart of the UNESCO committee’s recent concerns.

Will we be delisted?

What happens next is extremely important. No doubt the UNESCO representatives will ask for an explanation for what seems to have been a transgression of Australia’s international obligations under the World Heritage treaty. The representatives may also want to know if there is a remedy to fix the damage done to this section of the Great Barrier Reef. Depending on the answers and explanations they get, the committee will make recommendations at the 36th session of the World Heritage Committee in Saint Petersburg, Russia in June-July 2012.

This isn’t the first time the reef has been threatened by fossil fuels: the 2010 Shen Neng grounding damaged a swathe of coral. AAP

Delisting of the Great Barrier Reef is one option. This is likely to seriously tarnish Australia’s claim to environmental best practice.

But delisting is unlikely. Not to anticipate the response of the committee, but they are likely to ask the state and federal governments to take serious steps to mitigate the damage. They will probably ask that we pursue a course which is far more compatible with preserving the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef into the future.

Amid the outcry over bloated barramundi and fishing companies going broke, the recent development of Gladstone Harbour raises the question: how sensible is it to pursue the short-term gains of Central Queensland’s gas resources over the long-term benefits of managing the Great Barrier Reef as an ecosystem deserving World Heritage listing? This - and the growing stress on the Great Barrier Reef from climate change - emphasise the irony that the Great Barrier Reef continues to be haunted by society’s addiction to fossil fuels - in 1975 and now today.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Ove States "It’s a pretty straight-forward bargain."
    And there lies his error, for it is Not simple, not straight forward. A myriad of competing interests need to be taken into account in managing the reef for all, not just for a handful of coral whisperers who mistakenly think the park is their own.

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    1. Mark Graham

      Ecologist

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      What a poor and completely wrong contribution you have made here Marc Henrickx,

      Australia has an obligation to protect the World Heritage Values of the Great Barrier Reef. Because the Queensland and Australian Governments have approved massive industrial developments within and adjoining this World Heritage Area these obligations are not being met. It really is that simple and nothing to do with "coral whisperers" (whatever that might mean) or myriad competing interests.

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Mark,
      The reef only is protected and as healthy as it is because our economy allows it. Disallow adjoining development and you give the reef a death sentence. Ove HG forgets to mention that even he benefits from cash from Coal companies.

      Now if that doesn't make sense, go hug a jelly fish.

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  2. Hugh Evans

    logged in via Twitter

    Where is the data that shows the number of new ships that will navigate the reef to service all the new QLD mines? I don’t think people understand the scale of what is going on up there.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Hugh Evans

      This is important. One new mine planned for the central QLD region will be huge and will cost $7 billion to develop, and about $2,000 of coal per second will be loaded into ships when coal loading facilities are upgraded at ports such as Hay Point.

      All ships in the Great Barrier Reef area will have to piloted by Australian pilots, and they should be using the best navigation systems they can be provided with.

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    2. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to Hugh Evans

      Good question Hugh - I have seen numbers that indicate an increase in shipping about fivefold. I think these are based on coal carrier capacity and the projected export levels of coal.

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  3. Roger Currie

    logged in via Facebook

    How is the LNP going to ensure that a strategic assessment wil be effective , when they have DERM in the crosshairs ?

    How likely is it that an LNP environment Minister will co operate with Tony Burke ?

    A strategic assessment needs political will , an LNP state goverment is likely to result in a 'political will not ', or 'CANT DO' rather than 'CANDO'.

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  4. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    Here's hoping this makes the Governments think twice about taking the tourist dollar for granted. After all, going by what Gina Rinehart et al. say, the mining companies are all about avoiding royalties, minimising tax, employing short-term overseas workers, getting the stuff out of the ground as fast as possible, flogging it off overseas and leaving everyone else to clear up the mess (quick precis of her recent "poem").

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  5. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Thanks Ove, a good overview of issues.

    May I add that the Gladstone impact is not the sole issue facing us. Go look at:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-development-of-great-keppel-islands-public-land-lot21-and-a-marina-on-putney-beach

    This is but another impost that if approved, will likely cause further problems for the Barrier Reef.

    - - -

    Returning to the Gladstone Harbour impact, (perhaps wisely) I note you don't delve into the details.

    With two science degrees, I find…

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    1. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      Good points Bruce. There are ways to develop jobs and community in partnership with the Reef. But the current direction of these developments appears to be at odds with the long-term health of one of our greatest environmental icons.

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  6. Martial Depczynski

    Research Scientist in Coral Reef Ecology at Australian Institute of Marine Science

    Thanks for bringing this to the fore here Ove. In the West where the mining industry is very strong and touches everyone we have just had WH Listing for Ningaloo as you know. A strong reaction from UNESCO to the way in which the GBR is being developed may set an important precedent that the WA state government takes note of.

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    1. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to Martial Depczynski

      Marc - your comments seem a little odd. Yes, I have worked with Rio Tinto on an employee program helped the company educate its staff about climate change and natural ecosystems. Seems to have be a sensible contribution to Rio Tinto given the serious risks of climate change to coral reefs don't you think. And what do you mean by the phrase "coral whisperer"? I should warn you that this site is moderated.

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  7. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    How many people realise what would happen to the coal shipping through the GBR if nuclear replaced coal for electricity generation?

    One tonne of uranium has the same energy content of 20,000 tonnes of coal.

    One shipment of uranium has the same energy content as 20,000 shipmentts of coal.

    Not only that, the few shipments that would be required would not pass through the GBR.

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    1. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Ove Hoegh-Guldberg,

      Thank you for yor reply. I am wondering what you mean by "potential damage from nuclear". Compared with what?

      Is your repoonse objective or based on ideological position?

      Are you awarwe that nuclear is about the safetst and cleanest of all the electricity generation technologies?

      Are you aware that nuclear is sone 10 to 100 times safer than the best coal technologies in terms of fatalities per MWH on a full life cycle basis?

      Are you aware tht the mining, processing, transport, fabrication, decomissioning etc for nuclear is about 1/10th of that for renewable energy power plants on a life cycle basis?

      So I am wondering what you might be reffering to with your comment "potential damage from nuclear"?

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    2. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Lang

      I was thinking aloud about what you had said - I'm not for or against nuclear - It seems to be one of those technologies that has some definite benefits and some definite risks. It also depends on which generation of nuclear talking about. Anyway, I wasn't really trying to state that one technology was better than another at this point. And definitely not ideological about it. As with all options, we have to weigh up the pros and cons in a scientifically objective manner.

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    3. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Ove Hoegh-Guldberg,

      Thank you again for responding. I agree "As with all options, we have to weigh up the pros and cons in a scientifically objective manner."

      Unfortunately, that is something that certainly has not happened with the nuclear power option.

      Here is a short piece on "What is risk? A simple explanation".
      http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/07/04/what-is-risk/

      If you don't have time to read it, you might at least consider figures 1 and 2 and the explanatory text on them.

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