Australia Commits to Saving the Great Barrier Reef—but Still Plans to Mine More Coal

The iconic reef will stay off an international blacklist as long as the country holds up its end of the deal.

Some 1,400 species of fish live on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Courtesy Troy Mayne/WWF)

Jul 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Australia has made a 35-year deal with a United Nations conservation agency to restore the Great Barrier Reef. But the country is still hoping to become the world’s leading producer and exporter of coal—a major contributor to the reef’s decline.

At a meeting on Wednesday in Bonn, Germany, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee accepted Australia’s proposals for curbing several pollution problems affecting the 1,200-mile-long reef that runs parallel to the coastline of the state of Queensland.

The agreement averts putting the reef on a global list of threatened ecosystems and cultural sites, which seemed likely when the group first challenged Australia on the reef’s deteriorating health last year.

Agricultural runoff composed of silt, excess nitrogen, and pesticides is harming and killing the hundreds of sensitive coral species that make up the Great Barrier Reef.

Silt and other contaminants created by surging coastal development are also damaging the corals, which have diminished by 50 percent in the past three decades.

“What we have seen over the past year, especially the past nine months, is a total turnaround on Australia’s part on the recommendations given in 2014 by the committee,” said Fanny Douvere, head of the UNESCO World Heritage Center’s marine program and technical adviser to UNESCO on the Great Barrier Reef.

As part of the recovery program submitted to UNESCO, Australia committed to slashing agricultural runoff into the reef’s waters by 80 percent before 2025, increasing funding to monitor the reef by $6.2 million, and adhering to a 35-year restoration plan.

In addition to its ecological values as a biodiversity hot spot that hosts hundreds of marine species and as a barrier against coastal storms, the Great Barrier Reef is an economic powerhouse that generates upwards of $5 billion a year in tourism dollars.

With the specter of a “threatened” listing hanging over the Great Barrier Reef, and by extension Australia’s international reputation, “Australia clearly reflected on their approach from last year and decided to take this seriously,” Douvere said. “We’re at a moment where the Australian government and civil society agreed that this approach was a good approach. But what matters in the end is that the reef comes back.”

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Now Australia must make good on the agreement, said Dermot O’Gorman, chief executive of World Wildlife Fund Australia, one of several conservation groups that lobbied UNESCO to take action to save the Great Barrier Reef.

“Last year a government report, produced by some of Australia’s best marine scientists, said the condition of the reef was poor and likely to deteriorate more in the next five years,” he said. “That’s why this this decision by the World Heritage Committee is good: It puts Australia on probation and requires us to go beyond business as usual.”

O’Gorman added, “We’ve welcomed the Reef 2050 plan, but we’ve said that a plan is just a plan. Australia now needs to deliver concrete action.”

Over the past two months, he said, WWF Australia gathered more than half a million signatures on an international petition to save the Great Barrier Reef. He believes the grassroots support helped bring about the agreement. “It shows that people all over the world really love the reef,” O’Gorman said. “It’s a global icon.”

Australia will make its first progress report on the plan to UNESCO in late 2016, Douvere said. If the reef’s condition does not verifiably improve within four to five years, in 2020 it will join dozens of other important cultural and environmental landmarks around the world on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

As part of the agreement with UNESCO, Australia canceled plans to dump dirt and rocks dredged from the seafloor to expand Queensland’s Abbott Point coastal coal terminal into waters near the reef. “That was unimaginable last year,” said Douvere.

So, Why Should You Care? The effects of climate change and increasing carbon pollution in the atmosphere, including warming ocean temperatures and more acidic oceans, have also weakened the Great Barrier Reef. Burning coal for energy is the leading cause of both crises, but the World Heritage Committee did not take a position on Australia’s plans to become the world’s leading producer and exporter of coal.

“Climate change is a global problem that requires global action,” said Douvere. “But at the level of a threatened site, the only response is to build resilience by reducing the other pressures. So eventually, if there are major threats from climate change like coral bleaching, the ecosystem can respond to that.”

The primary backer of Queensland’s coal expansion ventures, an India-based company named Adani, recently announced that it was halting its work on the projects until the Australian government came through with needed environmental permits. Several major global finance firms opted in 2014 not to invest in the project.

While WWF Australia hasn’t taken a position on the coal terminal or mine, “we do say that Australia should tackle climate change,” said O’Gorman. “With the price of coal very low, it’s not clear that those coal projects remain viable on the current market. They would be white elephants if they were built and would have continued impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.”