Junk Explained: What Exactly Is Happening With The Great Barrier Reef?

Did #FightForTheReef clog up your Twitter feed today? Here's why.

You may have noticed the #FightfortheReef hashtag all over your Twitter and Facebook feeds today.

People from around the country — and the world — are whipping up energy and anger about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and the timing is crucial. Here’s why.

Why Are We Talking About It Now?

The Thunderclap social media storm at 2.30pm AEST today was organised to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee of the UN agency UNESCO, which began in Doha, Qatar on June 15, and runs until June 25.

At the meeting, UNESCO will be voting on whether to further pressure the Australian and Queensland Governments into improving their management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef. The proposed resolution expresses particular concern about the approval of the dredging and associated dumping of three million cubic metres of sediment at Abbot Point — part of a planned expansion of a coal port in the region, which is close to the Whitsundays.

In the past, the World Heritage Committee has expressed deep concern over the Government’s treatment of the Reef, and in May this year UNESCO issued another threat to downgrade the Reef’s World Heritage listing to ‘World Heritage In Danger’. If UNESCO voted in favour of this, it would be a massive international shame job on the Australian and Queensland Government’s treatment of the Reef.

What’s Going On With The Great Barrier Reef?

If you were to listen to the Australian Government, they’d tell you that the major problems facing the Reef stem from nutrient run-off from farmland and the associated blooms of crown-of-thorn starfish. It’s these issues that form the basis of their ‘Reef 2050’ policy.

These are undoubtedly critical problems, but focusing on them ignores a much larger threat, one that has raised the alarm of hundreds of scientists, community members, business owners, and now UNESCO: Australia’s coal export industry.

Fossil fuel companies have plans to build four new megaports on the coast of the Great Barrier Reef, at Townsville, Abbot Point, Dugeon Point (near Mackay), and the Fitzroy Delta (near Rockhampton). This on top of the already massive port at Gladstone, which is slated for an expansion. Of gravest concern are plans for the Abbot Point mega port which, if developed, would be the largest coal port in the world.

To build these ports, dredging and dumping occurs to allow larger ships to enter the waters. Massive machines will dig up seabed and rock, and then dump it across the Reef. This sediment can drift for kilometres, destroying water quality and landing on seagrass beds and coral. In total, current proposals would result in 100 million tonnes of dredge spoil being dumped into the waters of the Reef. Three million cubic metres of dredge spoil will be dumped near Abbot Point alone, right next door to the famous Whitsunday Islands. It’s no wonder therefore that 240 of Australia’s leading scientists oppose the plans.

And that’s not even the half of it. Remember when the industrial coal ship, the Shen Neh 1, shipwrecked itself on the Reef? It ‘pulverised’ a 3km radius of coral, leaving a ‘dead zone’ around its wreck. The planned megaports will increase the number of ships crossing the Reef from 4,0000 to 7,000 — that’s an extra 3,000 accidents waiting to happen.

And then there’s the other half of this debate: climate change. These ports are being expanded largely for the purpose of exporting more coal; The Abbot Point plans, for example, are designed to feed new coal mines in the Galilee Basin. There are proposals there for nine new coal mines, five of which would be larger than any coal mine in operation in Australia at the moment. Just two of these mines would emit six times the annual carbon pollution of the UK.

The impact of global warming on the Reef is pretty clear. Climate science has shown that reefs are highly vulnerable to rising water temperatures that come with a warming planet. Increased ocean acidity, which occurs due to the absorption of carbon in the water, also makes it difficult for animals and coral to make the shells required for their survival. This is why international experts have warned that the Reef’s future is bleak unless we cut emissions soon.

If these plans go ahead though, that opportunity will be blown clear out of the water.

Why Is The UNESCO Meeting So Important?

Unfortunately, one meeting can’t stop these plans from going ahead; UNESCO simply doesn’t have that power. The resolution is only about pressuring the Australian Government — but at the same time, we know that pressure can have an impact.

No government likes being chastened by world leaders over the treatment of their natural wonders, particularly one as important and renowned as the Great Barrier Reef. And that’s what this amounts to: an international shaming of both the Queensland and Federal Governments, over their slow progress dealing with the problems the Reef faces. That sort of embarrassment can go a long way to change Government positions. When the Everglades National Park was given an ‘in danger’ listing, for instance, increased awareness of the issue forced the US Government to increase funds for restoration (although work still needs to be done).

But this particular meeting is even more important than that. UNESCO doesn’t just have influence in the political world — they have sway in the financial world as well. Just recently, two major banks in Europe, Deutsche Bank and HSBC, publicly ruled out providing for the construction of Abbot Point, citing UNESCO’s concerns over the development as their key reason. These projects need money to back them up; losing support of the banks will make things a whole lot harder.

What Can I Do?

The Australian Government and the fossil fuel industry are likely applying pressure to the World Heritage Committee, to change their position in Doha over coming weeks. The Government doesn’t want this shame job to continue, and the industry is desperate for these proposals to go ahead. So the #FightForTheReef Thunderclap’s been organised by the World Wildlife Foundation to show UNESCO that we have their back.

To find out more and join in, head to their campaign page and use the #FightForTheReef hashtag.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner with Australia, who have supported the Younesco campaign over the past week. 

He blogs here, and tweets at @SimonCopland.

Feature image by Jürgen Freund for WWF.