Australian government favors coal mines over environmental protection

Things are getting hot Down Under.  Australian researcher Dr April Reside tells us about the Australian government's scheme to gut key provisions of a vital environmental protections law.  And as if the planet weren't warm enough already, it's all about digging up and selling more coal. 

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

The conservative Tony Abbott government in Australia is proposing alarming changes to the country's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 -- a remarkable move that would prevent environment groups from challenging many damaging development projects.

This has all come to a head over the Carmichael Coal Mine -- a plan to build a massive mine in central Queensland in order to export 60 million of tons of coal to India each year. 

Coal, of course, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and India's plan to burn it by the shipload for electricity is bad news for the planet.

The Abbott government is in a tizzy after after a community organization, the Mackay Conservation Group, challenged the approval of the Carmichael Mine in Australia's Federal Court. 

The community group says Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the impact the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake.

The mine site also sustains the largest population of the southern subspecies of the Black-throated Finch, which is endangered. 

The implications of the mega-mine go well beyond a few imperiled species.  If the mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in the world -- and the emissions from burning its mountains of coal would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emissions-reduction strategy.

On top of the frightening precedent it would set, the Abbott government appears to be double-dealing. 

There was an agreement among the Environment Minister, the mine's proponent (the Adani Group from India), and the Mackay Conservation Group that the mine's approval should be set aside temporarily, until the conservation issues could be properly considered by the Minister.  The parties agreed that the decision would be reconsidered in six to eight weeks.

But the federal government responded by attacking environmental groups opposed to the mine, calling them “vigilantes”. 

And now, the government wants to wipe out the right of environmental groups to challenge decisions that violate the EPBC law -- despite the fact that less than 0.4% of all resource-development projects have been halted under the EPBC Act. 

All this comes amid increasing calls by Australia's neighboring nations for a moratorium on new coal mines to prevent dangerous climate change.

The mine continues to attract heated controversy.  Building it would require a major upgrade to existing port facilities on the Queensland coast and could have negative impacts on critical wetlands, culturally important indigenous lands, and even the Great Barrier Reef

And despite all the fuss, many believe that the mine won't even be financially viable in the long term because of declining coal prices and India's pledge to halt coal imports in the next few years.

This isn't the first time the Abbott government has attacked environmental groups, and it may not be the last.  It's time to turn up the heat on the coal-loving Abbott government -- by signing this petition -- before it makes the world hotter for all of the rest of us.

Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Obama eco-speech infuriates Aussie conservatives

Can somebody please bring Australia's right-wingers a crying towel?

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

In addition to attending the G20 Global Leaders Conference in Brisbane last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a hard-hitting speech on climate change at the University of Queensland. 

This had Australia's right-wingers in a tizzy, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had specifically ruled out climate change as a topic for discussion at the G20 summit.

Obama, fresh off a major deal to reduce carbon emissions with China -- now overwhelmingly the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitter -- wasn't willing to be gagged on the issue.  Hence his speech at the University of Queensland.

Abbott and company were especially annoyed by Obama's assertion that climate change threatened the iconic Great Barrier Reef, as suggested by a number of studies of coral bleaching and mortality during past heat waves, as well as rising ocean acidification.

Abbott is notorious as a pro-coal, pro-mining, no-more-parks, no-carbon-tax leader who considers global warming a minor annoyance -- a manageable environmental problem that's been massively overstated by wild-eyed greenies.

So perturbed was Abbott by Obama's assertions about global warming and the reef that he had his arch-conservative Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, attempt to rebuke Obama

Bishop -- well-known for other anti-environmental tacks such as her heated opposition to Australia's illegal-logging act -- decried Obama's speech and claimed that Australia was actually looking after the reef very nicely, thank you very much.

So nicely, in fact, that UNESCO has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

So nicely that Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, immediately labeled Bishop's comments as "not credible".  

"I loved Obama's speech," said Hughes.  "I thought it was spot on."

Such exchanges show that the Abbott government is sorely out of touch -- not just with many Australians but with the leaders of many other industrial and developing nations. 

Abbott and his colleagues are now clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution on climate change.  And no amount of crying on their part will change that.

 

ALERT fights Australian scheme to silence eco-debates

This is a plan that needs to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Hoping for an asteroid...

Hoping for an asteroid...

If the Tony Abbott government in Australia has its way, it will soon be illegal to organize a consumer boycott of corporations that destroy or degrade the environment.

ALERT is leading efforts to counter this ill-advised scheme.  Please see this brief article and our press release.

The government's move is being decried both by conservationists and free-speech advocates.

Suppressing debate and public discourse is never a good idea.  Let's hope this idea goes extinct quickly.

World park body slams Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

ALERT's press release last week criticizing Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ill-advised 'no more parks' pledge (see blog below) has been followed today by a major blast from the world's leading park body, the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

Now I see the PM's logic...

Now I see the PM's logic...

In an open letter, 114 Australian members of the WCPA decried the PM's stance and Australia's resulting loss of international leadership in nature protection.

The letter follows Abbott's widely publicized speech to a timber industry dinner last week when he vowed not to "lock up" any more forests in national parks.

The Abbott government also plans to remove World Heritage protection for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian wilderness.

As detailed in blogs below, these latest steps follow a series of highly dubious actions that will weaken park and environmental protections in Australia.

 

Press release: ALERT confronts Australian PM over 'no more parks' vow

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has infuriated environmental scientists with his recent 'no more parks' vow.  In response, ALERT issued a press release today decrying the PM's ill-advised tack.

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

Don't blame me--I voted for the other guy!

The press release highlights the need for more--not fewer--protected areas in critically threatened ecosystems in Australia, such as the imperiled Mountain Ash forests of Victoria

It also highlights the stunningly poor example that Australia is now setting internationally, via Abbott's actions. 

The press release is already garnering attention both in Australia and overseas.  See also the related blog on ConservationBytes.com by ALERT member Corey Bradshaw.

 

Australia scuttles funding for endangered rhino

Australia had promised $3 million to help save the Sumatran rhino, one of the world's most critically endangered animals.  But now the conservative Tony Abbott government is breaking that promise, according to The Guardian newspaper.

Struggling to hang on...  (photo by Bill Konstant, International Rhino Foundation)

Struggling to hang on...  (photo by Bill Konstant, International Rhino Foundation)

Abbott's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced that the commitment--made by the previous Labor government--would not be honored. 

Only 200-300 Sumatran rhinos are estimated to survive today.  One of five living rhino species, it was formerly widely distributed across southern and eastern Asia, but today persists only in a few tiny, relict populations in Sumatra, Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia.

Sumatran rhinos are suffering both from rampant habitat loss--their forest homes are being destroyed faster than just about anywhere else on Earth--and from poaching for rhino horn, which is used in Vietnam and East Asia for traditional medicines and ornaments.

A particular concern is forest loss and road-building in the endangered Leuser Ecosystem and adjoining Aceh region in northern Sumatra, the last stronghold for the species and an issue in which ALERT is playing an active role (see blog below and our associated press release).

The director of the conservation group Wildlife Asia, Claire Campbell, called the decision to cut the funds "potentially pretty devastating for the Sumatran rhino."

Australia called 'most hostile' to the environment

The New Zealand Herald and The Independent have just posed a provocative question: Is Australia now the world's most environmentally hostile country? 

Wake me when it's over...

Wake me when it's over...

One could certainly list other nations with dubious environmental records, but Australia's place in the sun has fallen in the eyes of many, given a growing list of questionable policies from the conservative Tony Abbott government.  A partial list includes:

- The government's request to remove World Heritage protection for a large expanse of Tasmanian eucalyptus forest, which harbors some of the world's tallest trees

 -The decision to dump millions of tonnes of dredging spoil on the Great Barrier Reef (the UN has already threatened to list the Reef as "in danger" when its World Heritage monitoring committee meets in June)

- A well-documented resistance to meaningful action to combat climate change

- Allowing Western Australia to proceed with a large-scale cull of great white, tiger and bull sharks, in the face of strong opposition from many marine scientists

- A variety of alarming measures that are degrading the status and safeguards for Australian protected areas

- Efforts to seriously weaken Australia's recently passed anti-illegal logging bill (see our ALERT blog on this issue)

The leader of the Australian Green Party, Senator Christine Milne, has said such changes could make Australia a "global laughing-stock".  Let's hope the Abbott government sees the light in time.

Will Australia back-slide on its illegal logging bill?

Illegal logging is a serious and very real problem in the tropics, promoting forest loss and damage and robbing developing nations of up to US$30 billion in direly needed revenues each year.  Illegal loggers also have an unfair advantage over legitimate timber producers.  It's for such reasons that it would be absurd for Australia to roll back or weaken its anti-logging bill.

Logging trucks in Borneo--forests are falling fast.

Logging trucks in Borneo--forests are falling fast.

After a great deal of debate and research, the previous Australian Government finally passed an illegal logging bill in March 2013.  ALERT member Bill Laurance played an active role in this debate, briefing the Australian Senate and writing extensively about the importance of the bill.

Now the new Australian Government, led by the conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is considering repealing the hard-won bill, according to World Growth International, a pro-industry group that lobbies for large international timber producers.  The LNP has declared a wide-ranging war on what it calls "red and green tape".

Nobody likes excess bureaucracy, but the illegal-logging bill is playing an important role in helping to reduce illegal logging, along with comparable legislation in the US (the Lacey Act) and Europe (the FLEGT initiative).  Repealing or weakening it would be astonishingly unwise.

If the LNP presses ahead with this ill-advised tack, Australian and international scientists must be ready to speak up forcefully and often.