Here on Heron Island, you could be forgiven for thinking everything is calm on the Great Barrier Reef. There are kilometres of gorgeous coral and a bustling ecosystem around it – huge schools of colourful fish, turtles, rays and sharks.
It is the reef you grew up seeing on documentaries.
And, above the water, the reef is supporting an astounding colony of birds – everything from clumsy mutton birds that fall into trees and haunt the island at night, to cheeky white-capped noddies that appear almost interested in the people walking around. Above it all is a pair of soaring sea eagles, circling the island.
However, driven by climate change, the northern parts of the reef are suffering the worst bleaching ever recorded there. Stark images of ghostly white corals are coming out daily, as scientists document the damage that warm waters are doing to the reef.
Last year, the reef came close to being added to the World Heritage Convention’s list of world heritage in danger.
At the time the enviro-legal groups Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia released a report saying it was clear the condition of the reef met the criteria to be considered “in danger”, despite Unesco’s decision to let the reef off the hook for now. But over the past week, scientists have speculated that Unesco could soon reverse its decision.
And in corridors and offices on the mainland, a brand new chapter is beginning in an epic environmental battle that’s been going for half a century: the fight between the world’s largest structure of living things on the one side, and the mining industry on the other.
This battle could be a win not just for the Great Barrier Reef but also for any other world heritage area in Australia that is threatened by climate change. And it could add another roadblock to new fossil fuel projects too.
Something old, something new
A court case set to begin next month, will pitt the Great Barrier Reef against a coalmine. In some ways the battle is entirely new and, in others, merely the next logical step in a 50-year fight.
The Australian Conservation Foundation will take the federal environment minister to the federal court, challenging his approval of the Indian company Adani’s enormous Carmichael mine in Queensland. They are alleging he failed to consider the impact the burning of the coal from the mine could have on the reef.
It is a landmark case. If the ACF wins, and the mine’s approval is overturned, it would be the first time courts have ruled that the emissions released when coal from a development is burned are a relevant impact under the key piece of federal environmental legislation – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
“It could be a significant landmark case because it will apply to any new fossil fuel development – the minister will have to consider their fossil fuel emissions and their impact on world heritage areas,” says Kelly O’Shanassy, the ACF’s chief executive.
That would be new. But, in another way, it would be more of the same. It would be won in a way that many of the biggest protections for the Great Barrier Reef have been won: through a conflict between mining and the reef’s continued health.
Fifty years ago, the battle started when it was revealed the Queensland government had leased more than two-thirds of the reef to mineral exploration companies and cane farmers sought to mine the reef for cheap fertiliser.
The fight that ensued, led by ACF and other groups, eventually led to the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, creating the Great Barrier Reef marine park in 1975. And, in 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was listed as a world heritage site, requiring Australia to protect it.
The reef had been saved from mining. Or so it seemed.
Back then, the conflict between mining and the reef was playing out in a very direct way, with miners seeking to mine the reef itself.
Today the greatest threat to the health of the reef once again comes from mining. But in a more indirect way: now that threat is from the burning of the fossil fuels those mines produce.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said in 2014 “climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef”.
It said: “It is already affecting the reef and is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come.”
Selina Ward, a marine biologist from the University of Queensland, who is doing several experiments with coral and other animals on Heron Island, says: “It’s the biggest threat for a number of reasons.”
Sitting on the island, she says there are four main effects that climate change is having on the reef.
“Temperature is the one that we’re talking about at the moment because of the bleaching event that’s going on now. But temperature affects reefs in so many ways in addition to coral bleaching,” she says.
For example, high temperatures can lower the ability of corals to grow and multiply and it harms the fish that help the coral compete with algae and get a foothold after bleaching or damage from storms, she says.
But the second big way that carbon emissions are impacting reefs is by acidifying the oceans. That impacts corals in a multitude of ways – slowing their growth, deforming tiny corals, weakening their skeletons and hurting other organisms that support the ecosystem.
And finally, Ward says, carbon emissions are also increasing the severity of reef-smashing storms, and raising the sea level, which will drown some reefs and increase the amount of pollution that is washed into the water.
Seeing the battle up close
ACF is taking a group of reporters – this one included – on a trip to see what is being put at risk, hoping to raise awareness of its cause.
Travelling to Heron Island, this long-time conflict is perfectly illustrated by the scenery you pass on the way.
You fly into Gladstone airport, descending over several mines that seem a stone’s throw from the coast.
Then the airport itself sits surrounded on one side by Gladstone shipping and rail port, where mountains of coal are piled, ready for export – some 50m tonnes of coal passes through there each year.
And that port is now being expanded to accommodate more liquid natural gas exports – an expansion that has required dredging, which has repeatedly stirred up sediment and threatened the nearby parts of the Great Barrier Reef.
Then, just on the other side of the port is Gladstone power station, the largest power plant in Queensland, with six coal-powered turbines, emitting a total of 11.8m tonnes of CO2 a year.
Gladstone is a town built on coal. But arguably, its biggest asset is sitting just off shore.
From Gladstone, a two-hour, 80km boat trip lands you on Heron Island. As you get off the boat and walk along the jetty, sting rays, sea turtles and reef sharks swim back and forth.
Heron Island itself is a small sandy coral cay near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Its bright white sands surround a forest that houses thousands of birds. At night noisy mutton birds nest on the sand, creating a haunting sound. During the day little white-capped noddies sit around in small groups that seem to cover the island.
And all this life is supported by the astoundingly beautiful coral reef that surrounds it.
But that coral appears to be unprecedentedly under threat now.
Going, going …
In 1998, the first global coral bleaching event swept the Earth when, like this year, a strong El Niño was layered on top of global warming. Nothing of the sort had been seen before. “We lost 16% of the world’s reefs,” Ward says.
Heron Island was badly impacted. “Eighty per cent of the reef was bleached,” Ward says. “And we ended up with about a 20% mortality.” She says that was the worst bleaching she had ever seen on Heron Island.
But straight after that another surprise hit. The reef flat – the part of the reef that is exposed at low tide – bleached in the winter of 1999. Winter bleaching hadn’t been seen there ever before. And Ward says her work suggested it was the corals that had bleached the previous year that were affected, meaning they appeared to have been weakened by the earlier event and made more susceptible to further bleaching.
Right now, the world is in the midst of the third recorded global bleaching event. That means that, in less than two decades, something that was previously unheard of suddenly seems to be happening with alarming regularity.
Terry Hughes, a marine biologist from James Cook University and head of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, says that’s a smoking gun signature of climate change.
“The baseline temperature on the Great Barrier Reef has gone up between a half and a full degree, depending on where you are,” he says. “Bleaching happens once the corals sit in water that is one to two degrees above the normal summer maximum for a month or so. So we’re getting very close to a dangerous threshold.
“We’re very sure it’s driven by climate change because these massive thousand-kilometre bleaching events never occurred before 30 years ago.”
Out of the saucepan …
When another extremely strong El Niño was correctly predicted for this year, scientists scurried to study its impacts. Ward says teams were assembled at Heron Island and stayed there ready to study the bleaching as it came through.
But while very severe bleaching is affecting hundreds of kilometres of the northern, most pristine, parts of the reef, the southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef have escaped the predicted damage this year.
Against expectations and unlike 1998, Heron Island seems to has survived relatively unscathed. “We were so relieved,” Ward says. In a lucky turn, the warm water didn’t spread this far south.
And snorkelling through the healthy corals – and the teeming life they support – while their northern cousins are on the verge of death is a chilling illustration of what our carbon emissions are putting at risk.
And now a court is being asked to consider whether Australia’s obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef includes protecting it from risks imposed by the burning of coal.
Counting all the emissions – just not those from the coal itself
When the environment minister, Greg Hunt, approved the Carmichael mine and associated port and rail infrastructure (for the second time) in 2015, he acknowledged that climate change was understood to be the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef.
Taking that issue seriously, he considered the emissions caused by the trucks used in the mine, and the emissions from the energy the operation uses – the so-called scope one and two emissions.
But when it came to the emissions from burning the coal that comes out of the mine – so-called “scope three emissions” – Hunt said any calculation of what those emissions would be was “speculative at this stage”.
He said: “It is therefore not possible to draw robust conclusions on the likely contribution of the project to a specific increase in global temperature.”
He concluded that it was “difficult to identify” how those emissions would impact the reef.
Moreover, he noted the coal would be exported and burned in other countries. Those countries will then “be expected to address the emissions from … the product coal in their own countries.”
As a result, according to Hunt, despite carbon emissions being the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, the 4.6bn tonnes of carbon dioxide that coal will release into the atmosphere, which is more than the entire European Union releases in a year, was not relevant to Australia’s obligations to protect the world-heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.
“It is essentially one of the carbon bombs of the world,” O’Shanassy says.
Error of law
Under the World Heritage Convention, Australia is obliged to do “all it can to the utmost of its resources” to protect the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef. That obligation is implemented in section 137 of the EPBC Act.
In their legal challenge, ACF is alleging the minister made an error of law by not properly considering the impact of the emissions released when the coal is burned.
If ACF wins, the minister will be forced to make the decision again, taking into account the emissions from the coal that gets burned.
But even before the case is decided, depending how Hunt defends his process, it’s possible that a landmark precedent will be set anyway, says Michael Berkman from EDO Queensland, which is running the case for ACF.
Since in the approval process, the minister did actually refer to the emissions that will be released when the coal is burned, it’s possible that in the court case he will accept that they are a relevant impact, and defend the decision making on the basis that they will not harm the reef.
“This would be a somewhat unusual situation in that the change in the Minister’s decision making approach would effectively provide an agreed basis to set a legal precedent, rather than the more conventional situation of a Court decision setting legal precedent that changes the requirements for lawful decision making,” said Berkman.
One argument up Hunt’s sleeve might be already indicated in his approval of the mine: that the coal dug up in this mine will not necessarily all be in addition to coal that would otherwise be burned, but would displace other coal. Perhaps the total amount of coal burned will not increase – or not increase by the full amount of coal that is dug up.
O’Shanassy says that argument appears to be in contradiction to others that the government makes at the same time: that this coal will provide energy to millions of people in India and help lift them out of poverty. If it’s not in addition to other coal that was going to be burned, it’s hard to see how it can help lift more people out of poverty.
Not just the reef
If a new precedent is set, it will have a wider impact than just on the reef.
Although this particular case is about the Great Barrier Reef, it would set a precedent for all world heritage areas, says O’Shanassy. Any new project that requires approval under the federal envirnoment laws will need to have these sorts of carbon emissions considered, for their impact on any World Heritage Area.
And coming just weeks after the world watched in horror as world-heritage listed forests burned in Tasmania – another unprecedented event that is attributed to climate change – that could present a powerful tool for environment groups to fight to stop emissions.
The big catch is that either sort of victory for the ACF – whether a precedent is set by agreement during the case or by a win in the court – is far from certain to actually stop the mine from going ahead.
If Hunt is forced to overturn the decision and start again including a consideration of the extra emissions, it’s perfectly possible that he’ll do that and decide that they won’t significantly harm the reef – and the mine will be approved again.
But if he goes ahead and approves the mine again, the ACF says that in itself highlights a problem with our federal environment laws, since there is no way to challenge the merits of the minister’s decisions. There’s no legal way of arguing that he made the wrong decision – only whether the minister followed the procedure set out by the law in coming to that decision.
But O’Shanassy and Ward both say the evidence is clear that those emissions will harm the reef and so he can’t, in good faith, make such a decision. “That will show they’ve chosen a coal mine over the Great Barrier Reef,” O’Shannassy says.
Guardian Australia travelled to Heron Island courtesy of the Australian Conservation Foundation.