The Australian government’s decision to approve the expansion of a coal terminal near the Great Barrier Reef has come under fire from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
While deferring a decision on whether to list the Reef as “in danger” until next year, the committee expressed concern and alarm at the government’s proposal to dump 3 million cubic metres of dredged material into the world heritage site.
The government granted approval for the dumping as part of the expansion of the Abbott Point coal port, which lies on the fringes of the reef, and has received fierce criticism from environmentalists and Australia’s tourism industry.
The terminal will export coal from the nine mega-coalmines planned for Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
UNESCO’s decision was made as the World Heritage Committee met in Doha, Qatar this week to assess the conservation states of World Heritage Listed sites around the world.
The committee put the Australian government firmly on notice: take stronger action to protect the Reef or risk it being added to the “in Danger” list at the next meeting in 2015.
Campaigners fighting to protect the reef have welcomed the warning. WWF-Australia Reef Campaigner Richard Leck said:
The World Heritage Committee has resisted intense pressure from the Australian and Queensland Governments to water down its decision on the Reef. Instead the committee has put Australia firmly on notice to take stronger action to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
This is a victory for the millions around the world who say our Reef is not a dump. The Australian and Queensland Governments must take responsibility, lift their game and improve management of the Reef. If not they face the shame of having the Reef declared “world heritage in danger” in 2015, putting at risk thousands of tourism jobs.
In more positive news for the Great Barrier Reef, the Royal Bank of Scotland has this week joined Deutsche Bank and HSBC in publicly ruling out financing for the controversial Abbot Point coal terminal.
In a letter to campaign organisations the bank wrote:
RBS is not involved in the Abbot Point expansion project and has no plans to be involved in the future.
The move has been welcomed by campaigners who say it helps “move the goalposts” for Australia’s big four retail banks. They are now calling for RBS to also rule out investments in planned coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin – the driver for the port development.
Felicity Wishart, Great Barrier Reef campaigner for the Australian Marine Conservation Society said:
It is heartening to see global financial institutions such as the RBS take leadership and reject investment in projects that will damage the reef. The health of the Great Barrier Reef is already suffering due to poor water quality.
Port expansions would mean millions of tonnes of seabed being dredged and dumped in the Reef’s waters – sediment would cloud the water, damaging seagrass and coral, making matters far worse.
The dredge itself poses a direct threat to the health of the reef and the $6.4 billion tourism industry, but the dredging will also unlock far more coal export capacity, sending vast amounts of Australian coal off to be burned overseas, driving dangerous climate change and its impact on the reef.