Do you ever hope to go snorkeling? One student described her recent experiences at the Great Barrier Reef as “enjoyable, but concerning” when she found oil remnants on the ocean floor.
These visible impacts of increased vessel traffic through the reef have caused great worry to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). However, it is not only the increased traffic but the coal transported by these ships that places the reef in danger.
On February 1 this year, the Commonwealth Government was required to respond to UNESCO concerns on the impact a series of coal port expansions may have on a cherished Australian landmark, The Great Barrier Reef.
The proposed coal terminal expansion inside and adjacent to the reef would be receiving coal from the Galilee Basin in Queensland; a region that has nine large coal mines awaiting approval. From these terminals, the coal will be loaded on to ships and exported to the rest of the world.
Ships exporting the coal will be passing through the Barrier Reef, which may result in harm to the local marine life and is likely to destroy the beautiful coral which makes the reef a world heritage listed site.
Regardless of the Commonwealth Government’s response, it is unlikely that anything but the rejection of these proposed developments will convince UNESCO of Australia’s commitment to responsible management of the reef. Even if UNESCO accepted that development can occur in an environmentally responsible manner, such development surrounding the reef is bound to be detrimental to the flora, fauna and the general environment. This is primarily due to oil leakages and the consequential increase in carbon dioxide levels as a result of the coal transported.
UNESCO’s report emphasised the need for Australia to change its behaviour and practices by having restrictions on the activities conducted around the reef.
In the past decade, there have been several instances of tankers passing through the reef unleashing tons of oil and chemicals into the area. A prominent example of such pollution was in April 2010, when the Shen Neng 1 ran aground spilling oil into the surrounding waters creating a massive three-kilometre oil slick and leaving a large scar on the reef.
If oil leaks and damaging contact from such large ships transporting coal through the reef doesn’t destroy large swathes of coral, it is the coal industry increasing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere that will pull the final trigger.
All of this relies on how much more carbon dioxide equivalent – the measurement in which all greenhouse gases are rated for their capacity to store heat, and therefore their contribution to warming – we can emit. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the fossil fuel consumption until now has absorbed 80% of the set carbon budget the maximum amount of carbon dioxide equivalent that can be emitted in order to limit global warming to two degrees celsius. Currently, the IEA expects the entire carbon budget to have been used by 2017. Exceeding this carbon budget risks the occurrence of catastrophic climate change which influences natural disasters such as tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, bushfires and tornadoes.
Likewise, research by 350.org, an organisation dedicated to increasing climate change awareness, believes that humans themselves can only release another 565 gigtons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere before we face ‘runaway climate change’, where the effects of climate change pass tipping point and we cannot undo the environmental damage. The coal industry currently has 2,795 gigatons in their known reserves, waiting to be burnt for electricity generation.
Coal exportation projects including and similar to those in the Galilee Basin, if approved, will form part of the gross overshoot of the carbon budget, leading to catastrophic outcomes for the earth’s ecosystem.
Differences of opinion are inevitable in such an issue. The climate crisis and the management of the Great Barrier Reef both have complex solutions which may not be agreeable to everyone. However, a consensus is required in order to halt the coal port expansions. The governmental authorities can be influenced not only by senior officials and academics, but also citizens and university students just like us.
Ways of communicating your opposition towards these projects include contacting the Minister of Environment, Tony Burke MP, or writing a letter to your local member. You can also discourage coal production or the use of fossil fuels in your day-to-day life by reducing your own fossil fuel usage. Such proactive measures can prove to be exemplary and even motivate others.
Fighting against climate change is fighting to maintain the integrity of our natural environments and ecosystems which serve as the foundation for all other aspects of our lives. Damage to these ecosystems may one day limit our ability to enjoy our environment, so act now if you want to be able to have an afternoon of snorkeling in our Great Barrier Reef.