Author: Ben Cubby
Source: The Age
Date: 1 February, 2013
THE federal government has promised to stop any coal port or shipping developments that would cause ”unacceptable” damage to the Great Barrier Reef, in an all-out effort to convince the UN to preserve the reef’s world heritage status.
All criticisms of the reef’s management made last year by the UN body UNESCO have been met, according to a government report to be released on Friday.
The Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said he ”would not give an inch” to Queensland’s government over further port developments in sensitive areas such as Gladstone, unless they met the criteria of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Mr Burke said he was confident the strict application of the Act, together with changes in future coal production and shipping estimates, would keep the reef’s status as a world heritage site intact.
”Yes, it will,” he said. ”UNESCO wanted the government to establish a benchmark that they wanted us to meet, and it has been met. The development approvals that have happened [since the UNESCO report] have been consistent with that.”
UNESCO rebuked the federal government over the condition of the reef last year, saying the rapid increase in coastal and port developments near the reef was of ”significant concern”, and that it might have no choice but to revise its conservation status to a world heritage area ”in danger”.
It asked the government to not permit any new port developments outside of existing industrial sites.
The government’s response to the UNESCO findings describes the steps taken to address its concerns, including an overall plan for sustainable developments on and near the reef.
It pointed out that estimates of the rise in shipping near or across the reef, driven by Queensland’s coal and gas boom, had been revised downwards by the Australian Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics since UNESCO made its critical assessment.
”Many of those early projections have since been scaled down or withdrawn,” the report said. ”Current estimates indicate the increase [in shipping] is likely to be between 52 and 74 per cent, although this is also considered to be at the upper end of the likely range.”
After UNESCO’s report, Queensland’s Premier Campbell Newman responded: ”We are in the coal business.”
But Mr Burke said federal environment regulations would be applied wherever possible to meet the requirements of the world heritage committee.
Environment groups, including the Australian Marine Conservation Society and WWF, said they still believed Australia would fail to protect the reef.
”The sheer size and speed of port and associated development along the reef coast is unprecedented,” said the conservation society’s campaign director, Felicity Wishart.
”Australians love the Reef. It’s the centrepiece of Queensland’s $6 billion dollar reef tourism industry. But this is a wake-up call.”