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Abbott spoiling for a fight on GBR

By James Wight - posted Monday, 10 February 2014

Last Friday the Abbott government approved the dumping of three million cubic metres of dredged seabed in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. That’s enough waste to fill 150,000 dump trucks.

This outrage is occurring because of a planned coal export boom. Environment Minister Greg Hunt quietly approved the dredging in December while you were distracted with seasonal festivities and summer sports, along with Adani’s T0 coal export terminal at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point port.

The scale of the planned expansion is almost unimaginable. CO2 emissions from the burning of coal exports are already Australia’s largest and fastest-growing contribution to global warming, dwarfing its domestic emissions. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would together export enough coal to produce 700 million tonnes of CO2 per year, almost twice Australia’s domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries.


The Abbott government has also approved five other fossil fuel projects in the region: GVK’s and Hancock’s Kevin’s Corner coal mine, an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island, a transmission pipeline to supply it, Clive Palmer’s China First mine, and the Surat Gas Expansion. GVK’s Alpha coal mine was approved by the former Gillard government.

All these approvals have been granted in defiance of repeated warnings from the UN World Heritage Committee that the Reef would have to be declared “in danger” if new port developments were allowed there. Indeed, a major reason why the Great Barrier Reef was declared a Marine Park in the first place was to prevent oil drilling in the marine region.

The Great Barrier Reef is an Australian tourist icon supporting 63,000 jobs. Dredge spoil particles can be carried up to 80 km by ocean currents, and kill coral and seagrass by smothering them or blocking sunlight. Polling shows three-quarters of Queenslanders oppose the dredging.

It’s often said that Australia can make no difference to climate change. But proposed Australian coal export projects collectively are the second largest planned expansion of CO2 emissions after Chinese coal mining. In a cruel irony, the global warming and ocean acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide will quickly destroy coral reefs – so the planned development is a triple whammy for the Great Barrier Reef.

Yet Hunt had the gall to release a report on Sunday claiming there is “significant progress being made to improve the management, health and protection of this amazing iconic area”, including a “Reef 2050 Plan”. Supposedly the Government will protect the Reef by restricting where developments can occur – never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. Demand for this export growth depends on an emissions scenario where the world takes no further climate action beyond present policies, leading to >4°C global warming, despite Australia claiming to support the globally agreed objective of limiting warming to <2°C. If these emissions go ahead, there won’t be a Great Barrier Reef in 2050.

The approval process ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas, but denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our lounge-room. From an ethical and practical point of view, in a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, global trade means countries have overlapping spheres of influence. Thus Australia shares responsibility for emissions resulting from its fossil fuel exports.


It’s not just Queensland. In NSW, protestors are blockading construction of the Maules Creek Coal Mine, which will result in 30 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. In Victoria, the Napthine government is explicitly promoting the opening up of brown coal reserves for export.

The Government should declare an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel mining projects, draw up a plan to phase out fossil fuel exports, and launch international negotiations on a global phase-out. As Australia is the second largest coal exporter, exiting the fossil fuel trade would substantially reduce global supply, increase global coal prices, and help create a new international norm of leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

This government is only five months old, and already its level of irresponsibility on the environment is staggering. What about the fate of our reef, and humanity, on a much warmer planet?

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About the Author

James Wight is a Science student with Macquarie University, Sydney, intending to major in climate science. He is a contributor to the climate science blog His personal blog is at

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