Even as Australia’s most eminent reef scientists lament the worst ever outbreak of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland government has granted a mining licence for Adani to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine.
We know the Carmichael coal mine will create millions of tonnes of climate pollution for many decades to come – and recent images from the reef have shown that even minor temperature increases have led to widespread bleaching events. So how the Palaszczuk Government can in good conscience approve this development against the will of most Australians is deeply perplexing.
The Reef is loved by people all over the world for its beauty and diversity. But in the past few weeks’ news outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the BBC have been filled with stories not of its beauty, but of the thousand-kilometre stretch from PNG to Cairns and beyond that has been bleached white by abnormally warm sea temperatures.
The National Coral Bleaching Task force has estimated that 95 per cent of the coral reefs in that northern region are now severely bleached.
The only real conclusion to draw here is that the Queensland government had become beholden to the wishes of the powerful coal lobby. One thing we can say for certain is that if the State and Federal government side with Adani rather than listening to the millions of Australians who want to protect the reef, they will have a hell of a fight on their hands.
At present there are two major legal challenges to the Carmichael mine going ahead. This month the Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners of the land rejected for the third time an Indigenous land use agreement with Adani. They have gone to the federal court seeking a judicial review of a decision by the National Native Title Tribunal to issue leases associated with the mine.
So, far from offering free and prior consent, the area’s Traditional Owners are actively contesting the project, with community spokesman Adrian Burragubba emphatically stating: “This is a disgraceful new low in the exercise of government power at the expense of traditional owners’ rights.”
Meanwhile, ACF is challenging Federal Environment Minister Hunt’s approval of Adani’s Carmichael project on the basis that the Minister failed to properly consider the impacts of climate pollution on the World Heritage-listed Barrier Reef. The challenge will be heard in the Federal Court in May.
So aside from the unthinkable proposition of adding significant pressure in the form of carbon pollution to an already overstressed reef, the scale of the developments in the basin would blow Australia’s chances of meeting the modest climate targets we set in Paris and would further imperil Australia’s most loved national icon.
Data released earlier this year by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that carbon dioxide concentrations jumped by 3.05 parts per million (ppm) during 2015, the largest year-on-year increase in 56 years. And February 2016 was 1.65 degrees centigrade higher than temperatures at the beginning of the 20th century and 1.9 degrees above the pre-industrial level.
With the mine expected to operate for 60 years, we estimate Carmichael will generate 4.73 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2) in scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions over the lifetime of the project. That means this mine alone would generate more emissions than many countries including Vietnam, Belgium and Austria.
What our political leaders are failing to register is that, in the words of Stefan Rahmstorf of Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research we are now “in a kind of climate emergency.” The approval of a mine that will emit pollution on this scale is not the kind of action any government serious about addressing climate change should be taking.
There is a way forward – we need our governments to stop approving coal mines and make the transition to renewables that communities around Australia are urgently calling for.
Kelly O’Shanassy is CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.