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Reef or coal – “We can’t possibly do both”

Senator WATERS: I would like to go to the No. 1 threat to the reef. Obviously the various reports, the reef plan itself and you here today have repeated that this is climate change. I would like to read a quote from an article by Professor Terry Hughes, who I am sure you know is one of the world's foremost coral reef experts. He states: The government wants to have coal mines operating in six years time and still hopes to have a healthy reef. The science says otherwise. Either we plan to adequately protect the reef and transition away from fossil fuels or we abandon the reef and develop the world's largest thermal coal mines. We can't possibly do both. Can you tell me what the reef plan says about the expansion of thermal coal mining?

Dr Reichelt: I doubt it says anything about that. My colleagues can correct me if I am wrong.

Senator WATERS: That is my understanding. So, the reef plan is, therefore, premised on an expansion of coal and gas.

Senator Birmingham: I do not know that one follows from the other, but we can clarify that.

Dr de Brouwer: The reef plan does not go through fossil fuels mining. What it does talk about, though, is the government's policies and international action to reduce emissions, which may also be emissions from the use of fossil fuels, which can occur in a variety of ways. It does talk about techniques and ways to reduce emissions, which is government policy.

Senator WATERS: Do you think the Reef 2050 Plan has any chance of saving the reef if the Galilee Basin coal is burned?

Dr Reichelt: Going back to Professor Hughes's comments, I will say we rely heavily on Professor Hughes's work on resilience of the reef, and his whole group. The question comes down, for the management of the Barrier Reef, to how you weave in the global issue of climate change and fossil fuel burning. Dr Vertessy, this morning, made it clear that the principal source of C02 as a greenhouse gas is from fossil fuel. But in terms of the science of the marine park management and managing for resilience, a direct link between a particular coal field and the global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas is something that is outside the scope of this plan. It will probably belong—

Senator WATERS: Hence my question: how is the reef plan going to save the reef if it does not do anything to stop the Galilee Basin being opened up?

Senator Birmingham: Obviously Dr Reichelt and officials talk about the content of the reef plan. There is an underlying premise of your question that seems to suggest that one particular source of fossil fuels is the cause of future climate change challenges when, of course, there is a very strong and robust market in the provision of fossil fuels around the world from different locations. One mine, if it is not in operation, it is likely to see—

Senator WATERS: It is not one.

Senator Birmingham: Multiple mines, if they are not in operation, are still likely to see fossil fuels provided from the marketplace elsewhere around the world. I know that you understand the science of climate change to a greater extent than the approach of that question. I know that you understand that it is about the totality of global emissions and not about the operation of an individual mine or a region comprising a series of mines.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your explanation. I am across all of those issues. I have another quote here from another scientist that I will go to in a minute. I am simply putting to GBRMPA that when you have the world's foremost coral reef scientists saying that the reef plan is effectively not going to work if you ignore Galilee Basin coal mines, how is it that GBRMPA and the government can hold out the Reef 2050 Plan as this great solution to save the reef?

Dr Reichelt: It has to be answered in the two parts that you were discussing a second ago. There are several pages in the plan. It is not that it does not discuss it, but it separates it as a problem for coral reefs worldwide and not just the Great Barrier Reef. It talks in here about things that are outside the scope of the Marine Park Authority but in relation to emissions—

Senator WATERS: It does not mention the Galilee Basin mines, does it?

Dr Reichelt: I do not believe so. It is talking about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and that separation. The strategy for managing for resilience in the reef has had a lot of input from the same professor, who has written some great papers on it.

Senator WATERS: The government still has not stopped opening up new coal mines.

Dr Reichelt: The rational response for us locally is to address the other major locally manageable risks to build the resilience of this coral reef system. Worldwide coral reefs are vulnerable. That involves cleaning up water quality, improving its ability to bounce back from things like storms, starfish and other effects. As to the linkage of the mine and so on, there are other quotes in recent times from Professor Hughes. As of this morning he was quoted as saying that the government has made significant progress with this reef plan. I think it is probably joining two parts of the debate that to me are not logically connected.

Senator WATERS: If the Galilee Basin coal is burnt it would increase the global thermal coal trade by about 30 per cent.

Senator Birmingham: Not necessarily.

Senator WATERS: Excuse me, Minister. Do not interrupt me. I am asking the officials a question. You can interrupt when I have finished.

CHAIR: Excuse me. One moment, Senator Waters. I think it might be appropriate if we address people with a little bit more civility in this place.

Senator WATERS: Agreed. I will not interrupt you if you do not interrupt me.

CHAIR: Yes, but if he does interrupt you, just the way you interrupted him, I do not expect you to respond the way you just did. It is rude.

Senator WATERS: Let us agree not to interrupt each other, then. If I could continue, Dr Reichelt. How does increasing the global thermal coal trade by 30 per cent off the back of the Galilee Basin square with the reef plan saving the reef? Senator Birmingham: I take issue with the premise of your question. It ignores the fact that there is a global trade in fossil fuels, and it seems to work on an assumption that the Galilee Basin is the sole potential source of any future burning of coal and generation of emissions. That is transparently not the case. If you want to ask Dr Reichelt questions about the projections around the future of the reef based on certain climate change outcomes, that is fine—based on certain global actions in terms of the use of fossil fuels, fine. But to bring it down as you do to the specific geographical area as the source of those emissions betrays what I know you know to be a global problem. It is taking your campaign against coal mining in one location and trying to make it the cause of climate change when I know that you know much better than that.

Senator WATERS: I am sorry, but you cannot deny it would increase the thermal coal trade by 30 per cent and hence I feel perfectly comfortable in asking these questions and will continue to do so if you will let me finish.

Senator Birmingham: If it is not bought and burnt from the Galilee Basin it may well be bought and burnt from some other location in the world. That is not the sole source of coal in the world.

Senator WATERS: Given that the Galilee Basin is in Queensland, which is where I am from and where the authority is from, it is much closer to the reef.

Senator Birmingham: As far as I am aware, in terms of the climate change projections, it does not much matter where the coal has come from.

Senator WATERS: Perhaps you might like to have a conversation with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to just that effect. Dr Reichelt, given the 30 per cent increase in thermal coal export trade should the Galilee Basin mines be opened up and proceed as this government is keen for them to do, what effect will that have on climate change and hence on the reef?

Dr Reichelt: I am not aware of any modelling of that direct effect on the global concentrations. It is such a complex question to funnel that into the global picture. It is really outside my expertise and that of my agency to draw that link. Where we have expertise is in the atmospheric effects on the system globally and then translated to the reef specifically. It is not a question I can easily answer, because I am not an expert in that.

Senator WATERS: Given that your agency has identified climate change as the biggest threat to the reef, as have many other scientists, is it not something that the agency might start to look at?

Dr Reichelt: We have made it very clear what the risks for the reef are and the ways that it can play out. It is a much longer story than the two factors I gave you this morning. It is not something where we are authorised, where we have jurisdiction and we have capability to do more than analyse the impacts on the system. We are charged with protection and making it as publicly available as possible. You can appreciate the outlook report is very direct in both 2009 and 2014. The language is quite strong. Climate change and rising greenhouse gases are the single biggest long-term risks to the reef. Our response to it should be, on the one hand, encourage action on a global scale and, on the other hand, build the resilience of that system to enable it to withstand the pressures in the face of climate change. That is the context that we operate in.

Senator WATERS: Have you brief the Prime Minister on the effects of climate change on the reef, both current and projected?

Dr Reichelt: Not to my knowledge directly. I am sure the Prime Minister is well briefed. Our information is widely publicly available.

Senator WATERS: So, you have not been asked to nor have your proffered such a briefing?

Dr Reichelt: Not directly.

Senator Birmingham: As I said earlier when somebody asked a similar question of the Bureau of Meteorology, the department, when they provide advice and information for all manner of decisions to be taken, takes of course expert information from agencies like the Bureau of Meteorology, GBRMPA and consolidate that in the information provided to ministers and the government generally. That is the standard operating procedure.

Senator WATERS: So, you have been able to directly communicate your expertise filtered through the department?

Dr Reichelt: I did have a conversation on the launch day and the opening explanation from the Prime Minister and our Minister for the Environment was to acknowledge the risks of climate change in the launch of this plan. There are two pages of that acknowledgement in the plan itself as well. Our information is widely publicly available. It is very clear.

Senator WATERS: My concern is whether it is being read by the relevant people.

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