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Coral Bleaching – pic -The Ocean Agency

Australia’s addiction to the coal industry is killing our magnificent reefs

In an alarming statement to the world, the summer of 2016 witnessed the worst incidents of coral bleaching ever recorded. Of course many climate-change sceptics will claim that this was merely an anomaly and that the world’s ocean temperatures simply fluctuate, however the last few decades have produced an increasing occurrence of coral bleaching, which science proves it to be connected to rising sea temperatures, and the inability for our reefs to adapt to such rapid changes.

What is Coral Bleaching?

Coral bleaching is a related form of stress from environmental factors such as changes in water temperatures or contaminations from chemicals, sediments, bacteria, freshwater, ocean acidification and even intense UV light. Coral under stress loses its intracellular endosymbionts (zooxanthellae) through expulsion or loss of algae pigmentation, which leads to a lighter or completely white appearance.

Coral relies upon a symbiotic relationship with algae-like unicellular flagellate protozoa that are photosynthetic and live within their tissues, and gives them their colour. Expulsion of their zooxanthellae is considered a defence mechanism to stress. The coral can continue to live but the growth is virtually non-existent until the protozoa returns. Under severe stress the coral will die.

Ongoing extremes

Scientific evidence indicates that elevated sea temperature is the main cause of mass coral bleaching events. There have been more than 60 major episodes of coral bleaching that have occurred between 1979 and 2000 affecting reefs in every part of the world. Correlative field studies have pointed to warmer-than normal conditions of water temperatures to at least 1 °C higher than the mean summer maximum.

In 1998, a huge underwater heatwave killed 16% of the corals on reefs around the world. Triggered by the El Niño of that year, it was declared the first major global coral bleaching event. The second global bleaching event was triggered by the El Niño of 2010. The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the third global bleaching event in October 2015 and it has already become the longest event recorded, impacting some reefs in consecutive years, which is expected to last until the end of 2016.


Carbon Dioxide through fossil fuel and forest burning is rapidly increasing the earth’s air and sea temperatures at an alarming rate. The oceans of the world are also being subjected to an increased level of Co2 resulting in increasing acidification. The predictions of our sea temperatures to rise between 1.5-2 degrees this century may be conservative, though even at that level, it will most likely see the demise of most coral reefs on earth.

Meanwhile it’s full steam ahead with the Turnbull government’s agenda of digging up and burning as much coal as the market demands!

To placate the general concerns of scientists the government has granted many departments with funds to research possible means of remediation to our reefs, rather than bite the bullet with a view towards the phasing out the archaic coal industry into a renewable energy future.

Coal in Australia

Coal is a sedimentary deposit made mostly of organic carbon.

Australia has 2 types of Coal - Black and Brown.

Black Coal – Its deposits are mostly of Permian age (about 250 million years old), which vary from hard to soft. It has higher energy and lower moisture content than brown coal. In 2009 economically recoverable black coal resources were reported to be 43.8 billion tonnes with over 96% of these resources in New South Wales and Queensland. Australia has about 7% of the world’s economically recoverable black coal and ranks fifth behind USA (31%), Russia (22%), China (14%) and India (8%).

The major use of black coal is for generating electricity in power stations, where it is pulverised and burnt to heat steam-generating boilers. Coal used for this process is called steaming coal.

In 2008, 77% of the Australia’s electricity generated was produced by coal-fired power stations.

Black coal from New South Wales and Queensland is exported in large quantities to Japan, Europe, South-East Asia, and the Americas.

Brown Coal – Australian brown coal deposits are Tertiary in age and range from about 15 million to about 50 million years old. These deposits are found predominantly in Victoria. It is a relatively soft material, which has a heating value only about one-quarter of that for black coal. Brown coal has a significantly lower carbon content and is higher in moisture content than black coal.

Annual brown coal production is about 68 million tonnes, with over 98% being mined from the Latrobe Valley Victoria. Australia produces about 7% of the world’s brown coal and is ranked fifth largest after Germany (21%), Russia (10%), Turkey (9%) and USA (8%).

Almost all of the brown coal extracted is burnt to heat steam-generating boilers in electrical power stations located near the open-cut coal mines. Brown coal is also made into briquettes, which are used for industrial and domestic heating in Australia.  Some briquettes are also exported.

The Coal Industry

Coal is used to produce around 40 percent of the world’s electricity.

Australia is the fourth largest coal producer.

73% of our current electricity output is produced by the burning of coal. 

We are the fourth most dependent country in the world that relies on coal for electricity generation.

Coal is Australia’s second largest export commodity, accounting for about 13 percent of Australia’s total exports in 2012-2013 and worth about $38 billion.

Coal and Climate Change

The burning of coal to generate electricity produces greenhouse gases, which is causing climate change. Brown coal is not as efficient at burning as black coal (because of its high moisture and low carbon content) and therefore it produces up to 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than black coal when used to generate electricity.

Australia generated 549.3 mega-tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2014-15, and 70% of that comes from the energy sector.  Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world. It was 18.3 tonnes per year per person and the 11th highest in the world per capita in 2009. Australia consists of 5.15% of the worlds land mass and contributes 1.8% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas production.

Australia’s emissions increased by 0.8% last financial year compared with the previous one, and 1.3% when land use and deforestation were taken into account.  Emissions from electricity generation in Australia rose 3% accounting for 34% of the total in 2014-15, despite demand from consumers remaining flat in 2014-15. Power generation from black coal increased by 1.4%, and brown coal generation increased by 9.7%.

If all the countries of the world had a population density similar to that of Australia the global production of greenhouse gas would be reduced to 78.64% of current production levels. Conversely, if every person in the world produced the same as each Australian, the world would produce approximately 560% more greenhouse gas emissions.


Looking at the facts it is easy to understand why Australia is one of the largest carbon polluter per capita in the world with our obsession and present reliability on the coal industry.

Australia’s future economy can no longer look towards coal exports as the key to a strong economy whilst the super-industrial countries of China and India are rapidly becoming less dependent on coal and coal imports, and more dependent on renewable energy. In Australia, such entrenched political economics will leave soon leave us trailing in Asia’s wake as these countries move to be massive produces of alternative energy products worldwide.

The manufacture and installation of renewable energy in Australia could create many thousands of full-time jobs, stimulate the economy significantly, and create less reliability on fossil fuel power generation across most of the nation.

The economics of establishing more coal mines, and another Bass Strait undersea power transfer cable simply don’t stack up as a wise investment given the current trends towards renewable energy throughout the country.

In Tasmania alone, the costs of another Bass Strait cable would be approximately the same as installing photovoltaics on every household in the state, leaving Tasmania to be far more independent rather than potentially face in the future a reoccurrence of last summer;s power crisis.

The Australian government promised at the Paris climate talks to reduce emissions by 26% down to an overall to 28% by 2030. So far there seems little action and just more rhetoric towards any reasonable 2050 target of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

The Australian Liberals are desperate to keep the coal industry alive, and are only tokenstically sympathetic towards preserving the Great Barrier Reef.  With more coal burning, the future environmental impacts of marine life around the reefs will be catastrophic, and the economics of the tourist industry will suffer a similar and irreversible fate.

With new East Coast of Australia coal mines and exports planned, the Turnbull government, just as the Abbott one was, seem hopelessly delusional that we can have our cake and eat it too!

*Ted Mead is a staunch exponent of primeval forests and wilderness, and has been involved in direct actions since migrating to Tasmania over 35 years ago. In the process, Ted has been arrested, bailed, dragged through the courts, fined, and ultimately condemned with criminal convictions for his defence of the wild country he cherishes. While Ted believes the days of on-ground protesting are all but over, he is convinced that past direct actions by valiant protesters were catalysts for the vast nature reserves that exist throughout Tasmania today.

Coalwire 148, HERE: A weekly news bulletin which summarises the most significant developments affecting the global coal industry and highlights the efforts of groups around the world working on coal-related issues.