Australia’s government has dismissed grim warnings by a panel of leading scientists that the Great Barrier Reef will be doomed unless coal-fired power plants are phased out, insisting it is more important to keep electricity prices low for consumers.

The world’s greatest marine habitat is already at risk from global warming, and faces virtual extinction unless temperature increases are halted at 1.5 degrees Celsius by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the latest report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states.

“To limit temperature change to 1.5 degrees we have to strongly reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” said Mark Howden from the Australian National University, who contributed to the report. “They have to decline about 45% by 2030 and they have to reach zero by 2050.We’re not on track. We’re currently heading for about 3 degrees to 4 degrees of warming by 2100,” Howden added.

About 50% of the Great Barrier Reef is already in danger, and 70% will be lost if temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius. If there were a 2% rise, as much as 99% of the reef’s coral would be “bleached” and destroyed.

Scientists believe that Australia’s coal-fired power generation needs to decline to just 0%-2% of current usage by 2050 to prevent a 1.5% increase; some studies suggest this could occur as early as 2040.

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A coal-fueled power plant billows smoke in Australia. Photo: Facebook

Coal’s contribution to the national power mix has fallen to 69%, from 90% a decade ago, but Environment Minister Melissa Price said it would remain the nation’s key fuel.

“We make no apology for the fact that our focus at the moment is getting electricity prices down,” said Price, who has worked in the mining sector. “Every year, there’s new technology with respect to coal and what its contribution is to emissions. To say that it’s got to be phased out by 2050 is drawing a very long bow.”

Australia contributes only 1.24% of global greenhouse gases, but at 16 tons per capita its emissions are proportionately high for a developed country. The government pledged under the Paris climate agreement to cut emissions by 28% from 2005 levels by 2020, and Price said this was still achievable.

Yet the latest “Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory”, a government report released in September, showed that carbon pollution hit a seven-year high in the first three months of 2018, even though the nation’s per capita emissions were down to their lowest level for 28 years.

“The climate doesn’t care if you’re pumping out less pollution per population or relative to GDP,” said Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy. “They’re kicking the can down the road for the next government, but in doing so they’re putting lives at risk, because climate change is dangerous.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he answers questions during a media conference in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters
Then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House, Canberra, November 22, 2016. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Energy policies are a sensitive point for the ruling Liberal Party-Nationals coalition. Malcolm Turnbull was sacked as prime minister in August after pushing an energy bill that initially boosted renewables at the expense of fossil fuels. Renewables are now excluded from the government’s long-range energy plans.

Coal contributed US$25.6 billion from export revenues alone in 2016-17 to the economy of Queensland, the northeastern state where the Great Barrier Reef is located; the industry provided 8% of all employment and supported more than 11,000 businesses. The state is a major producer of both thermal and coking coal.

Tourism earns almost the same amount, and the reef is the star attraction. The largest living organism on the planet, it is visited by 25% of all marine creatures in spawning periods and indirectly supports the livelihoods of an estimated one billion people worldwide who rely on a seafood diet.

Covering 348,000 square kilometers, slightly smaller than Germany, the coral expanse actually has 2,500 individual reefs and over 900 islands and cays (banks) that contain 1,500 species of fish and 400 types of coral.

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Marine life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in an August 2016 file photo. Image: iStock/Getty Images

The coral has survived at least three previous climatic episodes, including the impact of global warming, but regrowth will be difficult this time due to higher levels of land-based activity that are affecting water quality.

Run-off from mines and agriculture, the construction of ports (mostly for coal) and clearing of mangroves have intensified in recent decades. Data released this month shows that 152,000 hectares of land was cleared in reef catchments in 2017; since 2013, 770,000 hectares have been cleared.

Conservationists are trying to block plans to expand six seaports on the lower half of the reef that will ship coal from new mines in the Galilee Basin, including the mammoth Carmichael project owned by Indian energy giant Adani. The US$11.6 billion project is expected to produce power for 100 million Indians.

There are several other mines in the basin, including a venture by India’s Gunupati Venkata Krishna (better known as GVK), but the Adani project has become a test case of efforts to call time on coal.

Protesters have rallied around Australia against Adani's giant coal mine project in Queensland. This picture was taken at Sydney's Bondi Beach on October 7, 2017 Photo: Reuters
Protesters rally around against Adani’s giant coal mine project in Queensland on October 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Although the mine was approved in July, the state government — mindful of the rising tide of opposition — said it would veto any attempt to offer Adani federal loans, thus forcing infrastructure cutbacks and raising doubts over its financing.

Coastal communities believe Adani’s project will create 10,000 jobs and give a vote of confidence to other mining regions, but urban activists hope to make climate change a core issue in the looming general election which must be held next year.

Scientist Tim Flannery said after it was approved that the mine’s impact would be so great it was “best thought of not as an Australian, or even an Australian-Indian project, but one of global impact and significance.”

“The citizens of the world deserve a say on whether their children should have the opportunity to see the wonder that is the reef,” he said. “The Great Barrier Reef does not have to die in a greenhouse disaster like the one that devastated the oceans 55 million years ago. But if we don’t act decisively and soon to stem our greenhouse gas emissions, it will.”