Australia’s largest coalmine is set to commence operations after the government approved three mining leases on Sunday. As Barbara Barkhausen in Sydney reports, the decision could be fatal for the Great Barrier Reef, which is currently experiencing the worst-ever coral bleaching.
Australia’s environment minister Greg Hunt personally flew over the northern portions of the Great Barrier Reef in March to assess the damage to the corals caused by the markedly warmer ocean temperatures. Not long afterwards, preliminary scientific analyses revealed that an alarming 95 per cent of the northern Great Barrier Reef is affected by coral bleaching, half of which could die.
Green light for Australia’s largest coalmine
Despite this, the government of the state of Queensland, where the Great Barrier Reef is located, announced on Sunday that it has approved mining leases for the Indian mining group Adani to mine coal in the coming year at the Carmichael mine in the Galilee basin.
The plan is to mine 60 million tonnes of coal per year over the next 60 years for export to India. According to Greenpeace, this would amount to 121 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, four times the amount that New Zealand would emit over the same period of time.
A special railway line will carry the fossil fuel from the country’s interior to the Abbot Point port on Australia’s east coast so it can then be transported over the reef region to India. Thousands of jobs are expected to be created.
‘In danger’ listing on the near horizon
According to the Queensland government, over 200 environmental conditions have been placed on the project to protect the local flora and fauna, water reserves, indigenous inhabitants and reef.
But not everyone is convinced by such reassurances.
“Unbelievable”, wrote the activist group GetUp on its Facebook page. “The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our eyes.”
Just last year, the Great Barrier Reef managed to squeak by with a only warning from UNSECO when the world famous reef was barely spared being placed on UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ list for endangered world heritage sites. Instead, UNESCO tasked Australia with urgently improving the water quality, among other conditions.
At the end of this year, the Australian government has to present a report demonstrating how and if the planned protection measures were implemented. But already now the Australian Institute of Marine Research (AIMS) is warning that the water quality targets for the reef cannot be met. The current efforts have simply not been enough, Frederieke Kroom from AIMS told the Australian state broadcaster ABC.
14 banks refuse to finance the project
Conservation groups, researchers and even the indigenous people in the region have already announced that the battle against the coalmine is far from over. Not only will the project harm the region, the Greet Barrier Reef and the global climate, many also doubt the economic logic of the project.
It’s not for nothing that 14 international and Australian banks have already rejected to finance the mine out of environmental and economic reasons, says Greenpeace. Coal prices have plummeted in recent years due to waning Chinese demand.
But when it comes to mining coal, Australia’s two largest political parties have similar policies: while the current mine leases were granted by the regional Labour government, the conservative government led by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is the industry’s biggest supporter. As his predecessor Tony Abbott once famously said: “Coal is good for humanity.”
The reef is sick
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms and is visible even from outer space. But in the past three decades, the reef has already lost 50 per cent of its coral: climate change, storms, agricultural wastewater, the spread of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, and the expansion of ports are leading to the death of the reef.
Climate change and the current El Niño, which is the strongest on record, have resulted in warmer water temperatures and caused strong coral bleaching, especially in the northern portion of the reef. The corals turn white because their symbiosis with a type of algae, which supplies the cnidarians with energy and gives them their bright colours, is interrupted. If the water remains too warm for long enough, then the corals can no longer recover and die.