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Here’s What UNESCO Should Have Told Australia

Australia will leave the World Heritage Committee Meeting today with a few lessons on the Great Barrier Reef. Only one should have been emphasized, and that's about mining.
Image via Wikipedia Commons

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Today marks the closure of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany. In the past ten days the committee has made hard choices for heritage areas all over the planet, including the decision to not list the Great Barrier Reef as "in-danger."

This call came last Wednesday, on the proviso that Australia cut agricultural pollution by 80 percent, restrict industrial development, and to stop dumping dredge waste in the marine park. And while UNESCO acknowledged that the Australian Government had made some conservation progress, the committee warned the outlook for the Reef remained "poor."


Of all the things killing the Reef, UNESCO flagged the Australian government's proclivity for mining as the principle threat. The problem, as the committee observed, is that expansion of Queensland's mining industry requires larger ports to export minerals, and those ports sit along the reef. Then there's all that Australian coal burning in power stations across Asia, and ravaging the reef via climate change. Media attention may have died down around mining since Queensland's pro-coal government lost office, but the issue certainly hasn't gone away.

For a further look at these issues, check out our video, 'The Grim Barrier Reef'

In terms of value, coal is Queensland's biggest export asset. Across the state, 56 coal mines have produced billions of dollars in coal exports from within the Bowen and Surat Basins, which cluster in the central-southern areas of the state and contain some of the biggest coal reserves nationwide.

This is why since 2012 Queensland has been working to open up the Galilee basin, which sits just west of the existing Bowen and Surat basins. One will be the recently-approved Carmichael coal mine, expected to produce 60 million tons of coal a year, making it the country's biggest coal mine. A dedicated rail line will then transport it all to Abbot Point, a port along Queensland's coast that sits not too far off the Great Barrier Reef.

In order to handle such a huge volume, the port must be expanded to add another 35 million tons to its current 50 million ton capacity. Any excess would cater to one of any number of other coal mines in the region.


The company behind the project is $9.389 billion dollar Indian mining giant and port operator Adani. In the fashion of megalomaniacal business magnates the world over, the company is named for its founder, Gautam Adani, whose folksy origin story has him moving to Mumbai as an 18-year-old and making his first million as a diamond broker by the time he was 20. Adani, the company, made it big in 1995 managing the largest private port in India along the Mundra coast in the country's northwest. Later, it was contracted by the Indian government to build an "ultra mega" 4,150MW coal-fired power plant in the area. Local fisherman say it filled the sky with ash and killed the fish they had depended upon for centuries.

Operating a large commercial port catering to one of the world's largest coal mines is never going to be the most sustainable business operation, but Abbot Point takes it to the next level. To open up the port for the super tankers needed to ship coal in volume to India, Adani has to dredge the seabed, including seagrass and animals. Initial plans would have seen five million tons of silt dumped into the sea in the area around the Reef. After an outcry, this was scaled back to three million tons to be dumped on the sensitive Caley Wetland. Then the former Liberal government were slaughtered at the election, which is the point at which this story took a back seat from the headlines. But Labor still wants to dredge, they're just talking about dumping the waste inland.


Operating a large commercial port catering to one of the world's largest coal mines is never going to be the most sustainable business operation, but Abbot Point takes it to the next level.

That is, if the finances hold up. Documents leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald suggest Adani's finances are increasingly wobbly. At present, 11 international banks have refused to invest in the Galilee basin project and for the thing to work, the price of Australian thermal coal, that is the coal used to generate power, needs to sell for $110 a ton. Right now, it's selling for $64.99.

Which is a problem for the state and federal politicians, left and right, who have spent the last few years getting feverish over the idea that coal will make it rain. Under the Liberals, Queensland's former deputy premier Jeff Sweeney promised thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in royalties. Since Labor took office, state treasurer Curtis Pitt has described the opening of the Galilee as "critical" to Queensland's future.

Federally, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made headlines last October when he declared "coal is good for humanity" at the opening of a new coal mine in Queensland. Coal, he said would remain the "world's main energy source for decades to come."

Abbott's rationale is that slinging coal to India and China is a safe bet, a way of thinking born in last decades' mining boom buzz where China was inhaling raw materials at a rate faster than anyone could produce. Everyone thought it would last forever, until it didn't.


The exact same scenario is also happening to coal as the price of thermal coal has dropped 40 percent since 2010. This has translated into some 30,000 people out of work last year alone.

This downward trend is being driven, in part, by the rapid development of the renewable energy sector. Last year global investment in renewable energy grew 16 percent, with solar making up half that amount.

At the bleeding edge of this is China. In recent years it has been pushing for a non-fossil fuel powered economy. Since 2013, it has not built a single coal-fueled power source and has no plans to until at least 2020. Instead China, also a major manufacturer of solar panels to the world, is drawing increasingly on nuclear, gas, and renewables. Last year, it even banned some the dirtiest coal from being imported, threatening the value of about 49 million of the 170 million tons that run through the port at Newcastle in New South Wales in a given year.

India, home of Adani and potentially Queensland's biggest customer, could have been the exception. But this changed late last year when the Indian energy minister signaled he was looking at a China-style ban on coal imports as the country rolled out solar. In the meantime, he said, they would support themselves with their own domestic coal industry. At the moment there are no immediate plans to bring in a ban, but should one fall, it would bring down the axe, taking the Abbot Point expansion and a good chunk of the Queensland coal mining industry with it.

Though, honestly, there's a fairly good chance that may happen anyway. Last June, Adani was threatening to walk away from its multi-billion dollar project if Queensland's government didn't get on with dredging the Abbot Point seabed. If the Port isn't dredged by 2017, Adani will lose $1 billion every year it is not exporting from its $16 billion Carmichael mine.

Which is good news for the Reef, but still means Australia is basically pumping money into an industry destined to be made redundant and makes about as much business sense as buying into what's left of the worlds' VHS tape manufacturing industry, while insisting to everyone that tape is timeless.

If the Queensland and Australian Federal Government are serious about saving the Reef, Abbot Point should be scrapped as the ridiculous development it is.

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