Australia is not setting the perfect example for a development model that emerging countries can emulate. The government of Queensland, along with the Federal government recently relaxed their guidelines that governed the mining industry for excavation of coal in areas surrounding the Great Barrier Reef. The rapid demand for coal and energy, and the subsequent lure of economical growth and jobs has been a primary force in the government’s decision to go ahead with the potential destruction of one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders.
Here is a little background on the whole story: The Great Barrier Reef is a 600,000 year old natural ecosystem that is home to some of the most beautiful coral polyps in the world. The nearerst port to the reef is the Abbot Point port which was up until now held up in a debate over its expansion plans. Economists argued that expanding the port and allowing dredging of coal could unlock a ‘mine’ that could pump in tens of billions of dollars to the Australian economy. This debate reached a logical end late last year when the government okayed the proposal to expand the coal port that will also mean mud dumps as high as 3 meters close to the Great Barrier Reef. According to some estimates, this decision could massively increase the coal output currently processed in Australia – from around 240 million tonnes in 2013 to as much as 787 million tonnes by 2030.
Besides giving Australia an opportunity to earn hundreds of millions of dollars through mining, the new coal port is also expected to complement a growing energy demand in the country. Australia is already one of the leading consumers of energy in the world with a per capita consumption of 5366 kg of oil equivalent energy that is much above the 3011 kg consumed per capita in UK and 4086 kg per capita in neighbouring New Zealand. The total energy consumption in Australia is expected to grow close to 29% between 2009 and 2034. Although the economy’s reliance on coal is expected to dwindle over the coming years, the capacity is expected to continue growing – a 2011 report published by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Government of Australia projects coal production to rise 96% in the 35 year period to reach 632 million tonnes.
The numbers projected in the BREE report of 2011 and those projected post the opening up of the coal port point to a near 150 million tonne per year increase in production due to the new plans. These numbers are expected to open up the Australian economy to foreign currency in a big way. However, this could also potentially lead to a drop in tourist visits – according to numbers released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, there were close to 1.99 million visitor days at the marine park for 2012. Writing for the company blog, Jay Barnett, the founder of Priority Pickup, a leading passenger services company in Australia noted that there needs to be a fine balance between economic growth and conservation of the natural ecosystem. This view has also been endorsed by Ken Marcer writing for Mining Australia.
Is Australia willing to trade this long term attraction to meet exciting new targets in the energy industry? Will a short term spurt in economic activity a good excuse to kill a marine ecology that is several hundred thousand years old? At a time when the world is moving away from non-renewable forms of energy to renewable energy sources, this is a question that the Australian government needs to answer.
Photo Credit: Australia Mining and the Environment/shutterstock