It is known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World and regarded as a global treasure, but experts have warned Australia's already fragile Great Barrier Reef in under threat in what could be an environmental disaster with global implications.
Australia's new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who once famously said that climate change is "crap," has been accused of removing climate policies that protected the environment to allow the rich to become richer.
The expansion of destructive coal facilities in the World Heritage Area are being driven by the potential development of nine mega-mines in Queensland’s vast Galilee Basin.
The Basin represents the world’s second largest reserve of unexploited fossil fuel and if green-lighted, would result in thousands more coal ships passing through the Great Barrier Reef every year - a move branded "environmental madness."
In a potentially disastrous "double-whammy," Greenpeace told HuffPost UK that Australia's reef not only faces being irreversibly damaged, but, additionally, as a result of the mining, the country's coal production threatens to spark carbon emissions on an unprecedented level.
Now, UNESCO is considering whether the Great Barrier Reef should be put on the list of World Heritage sites in danger – often dubbed the “shame list” by conservationists – while Greenpeace has said they face a fierce fight against the Australian Government and those funding the mining projects.
"We're in for a major battle," said Greenpeace's Louise Matthiesson.
"Australia is facing a hard choice right now whether to make a quick buck from coal exports or whether to preserve an economically, long-standing national treasure.
"We fear Tony Abbott could overturn all the steps that have been taken domestically to protect the environment, to instead fast track coal export developments and drastically weaken environmental laws that were created to protect the country," she said.
In June, a UN report expressed "extreme concern" over the level of development along the Great Barrier Reef coast, calling for all building to cease until an assessment of the ecosystem's health was carried out.
UNESCO issued a stark warning against the construction of new ports or increased shipping in the region, having already expressed concern about the "limited progress" Australia has made in a plan to protect the reef from development in May this year.
At the time Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said being put on the danger list would represent a “huge international embarrassment for the country.”
If the proposals were to go ahead the reef could lose its World Heritage status, while the dredging and dumping of 3m cubic metres of material inside the Great Barrier Reef marine park would threaten coral, dugongs, turtles, dolphins and much of the rest of the reef’s profusion of life, Greenpeace warned.
“All the numbers are heading in the wrong direction,” said David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
“As the Arctic ice melt plunges new depths, Australia’s coal exports are preparing to soar to new heights – the two are not unrelated," he said.
The scale of the planned mining operations in the Galilee Basin has global implications, he warned.
However, Queensland's premier, Campbell Newman, has already urged Abbott to approve the massive new coal projects in the state "as soon as possible."
Newman told ABC Radio he had been called by the prime minister elect to discuss the "blockers" faced by the Queensland government.
He said he told Abbott "to get out of the way and let this government get on with taking the state forward economically".
Australia's burgeoning coal export industry, already the largest in the world, could grow to 408m tonnes of shipped resources a year by 2025, resulting in an annual 760m tonnes of CO2 – creating more carbon pollution than the entire United Kingdom or Canada.
Additionally the increased risk of accidents on the reef from the increased shipping traffic could be disastrous The Wilderness Society's Queensland campaign manager, Dr Tim Seelig told ABC.
"There is no question that UNESCO are going to have major problems with any proposal to be shifting coal from barges onto container ships in the Great Barrier Reef area," he said.
"That's just environmental madness. And it's inconceivable that UNESCO would allow that to happen.”
A campaign to "Save The Reef" has already gathered more than 200,000 supporters.
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