The continued existence of the Great Barrier Reef is in danger, according to a prominent Australian scientist. As Barbara Barkhausen in Sydney explains, Australia is one of the worst polluters in the world with its continued reliance on coal.
Australia’s environmental balance looks anything but rosy. After iron ore, coal is the country’s largest export product. It is also the number one source used to generate the country’s electricity.
Australia produces 16.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita per year — one of the highest levels in the western world. Thanks to climate change and rising ocean temperatures, one of its greatest treasures – the Great Barrier Reef – is being hit hard by the Australian love of coal.
Modest climate targets
Australia is doing as little as possible to stop climate change. You don’t have to look any further than the climate tax that was unceremoniously abolished.
And yet Australia depends on a stable climate more than most other countries in the world: if sea levels rise, millions of climate refugees from submerged Pacific island nations would flood to Australia. The country’s coastal cities would find themselves partly submerged, and tropical cyclones would no longer be limited to just the northern part of the country.
A recent study from Munich Re estimated that the costs related to natural disasters in Australia could rise from today’s USD 4.6 billion to USD 16.9 billion by 2050.
Half the coral are already dead
For the Great Barrier Reef – the largest single structure made by living organisms on planet Earth – warming of the water by more than two degrees would simply be a deathblow.
“If Paris does not act, the Great Barrier Reef will die within 50 years,” warned Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine scientist and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, in the lead-up to the UN climate talks.
Climate change, storms, agricultural wastewater, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks (which eat the coral) and port extensions have all put the reef under a massive amount of pressure.
Scientists such as Hoegh-Guldberg are working intensively to protect the reef: “Research is being conducted on how we can fortify the genetic makeup of coral by using genes that better tolerate warmer temperatures, and on particles that would prevent light from penetrating the surface of the water and thus damaging the reef.”
But all of these “techno fixes”, as Hoegh-Guldberg calls them, are no more than “courageous rescue efforts”. As he points out: “We are talking about an ecosystem that is as large as Italy.”
Coal must stay in the ground
The only way to save coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef, which employs 70,000 people and brings in USD 6 billion each year through reef tourism, is to reach a “stable climate” by mid-century, says Hoegh-Guldberg.
This means doing away with fossil fuels. According to the Australian Climate Council, 90 per cent of Australia’s coal reserves have to remain in the ground if global temperature rise is to be kept below two degrees Celsius.
This is not an easy task for Australia’s resource-dependent economy, and no efforts are being made to limit coal investments. With the exception of the Green Party, the entire political spectrum stands behind the coal industry.
Just this year the country approved the world’s largest coal mine, the Carmichael mine in the state of Queensland, which will export 60 million tonnes of coal annually to India for the next 60 years.