Great Barrier Reef and Coal Export — a Zero-Sum Game?


The Great Barrier Reef, lying to the Northeast of Australia, has long been regarded as a national and international gem. Known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is home to over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays.

Natural aesthetic beauty is not the only value of the Great Barrier Reef. In 2017, the Great Barrier Reef has been valued to the tunes of $56 Billion. The value of the Great Barrier Reef is multifold – historical, scientific, indigenous, and social. Every year, the Reef contributes billions of Australian dollars to the local and national economy in industries such as tourism and fishing.

Such a treasure, however, is facing an existential crisis that’s never seen before. The latest estimation by National Geographic shows that half of the corals living in the area are believed to be bleached to death. The killer of the corals is mainly the rise in water temperature, which exacerbated by the emission of greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change globally.

The Great Barrier Reef catchment area is rich in mining resources. Thanks to the growth of demand for coal in the global market in recent decades, the production of saleable coal has witnessed a growth of about two and a half fold since the early 1990s. The catchment and further inland, especially Queensland, has seen some of the world’s largest coal mines and ports in recent years.

The projection for 2025 made by the Great Barrier Reef authority demonstrates a concentration of coal production in the catchment of the Reef with a projected export volume ranging from 79 to 185 million tonnes for thermal coal. If one needs an estimation of profits, revenue of $16.7 billion in thermal coal export generated from 194.59 million tons of product in the 2013–2014 financial year should give a pretty good idea.

With such a quantity of resources and the global market of thermal coal, many local people see the coal export of the Great Barrier Reef and the bleaching and death of the corals triggered by the consumption of fossil fuel as a zero-sum game – one either chooses the development or the environment.

The clean energy industries in the region are also expanding recently. Especially in North Queensland, over 830 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy projects are either contracted or under construction since 2016. Infrastructure alone of these projects will see an investment scale of $1.6 billion. From a consumer perspective, the rooftop solar systems installed in regional Queensland last year are estimated to save $49 million over the next decade by reducing family power bills.

Regional Queensland might benefit more in energy industries and tourism combined if they stop seeing environment and development as a zero-sum game, but a long-term strategy coordinating among various resources, spending and revenues in the region. This way, our next generation might still have a chance to see the Great Barrier Reef, alive.


Victoria Tianyi WANG


“Great Barrier Reef | Australia’s Great Natural Wonder,” Great Barrier Reef,

Grech, R. L. Pressey, and J. C. Day, “Coal, Cumulative Impacts, and the Great Barrier Reef,” Conservation Letters 9, no. 3. 200–207. (2016)

Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). Resources and Energy Statistics 2014. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, Australia. (2014).

Felicity Caldwell, “Queensland Renewable Energy Jobs Double in Four Months,” Brisbane Times, November 21, 2017. (2017).

Gooch, M., Dale, A., Marshall, N., & Vella, K. Assessing the human dimensions of the Great Barrier Reef: A Wet Tropics Region focus. Report to the National Environmental Science Programme. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Limited, Cairns. (2018).

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Australia. (2014).

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. “Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2014.” (2014). ISBN 9781922126368

National Geographic. “Half of the Great Barrier Reef Is Dead,” August 7, 2018. (2018).

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