Interview with Greg Hunt : "We ended dredging - forever"

The Australian environment minister Greg Hunt sees the Great Barrier Reef better protected then ever. And his prime minister Tony Abbot now accepts the science of climate change. Interview by Dagmar Dehmer.

The Great Barrier Reef has about the size of Germany. And it is "majestic" says Australias environment minister Greg Hunt.
The Great Barrier Reef has about the size of Germany. And it is "majestic" says Australias environment minister Greg Hunt.Foto: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority/dpa

Whoever travels to Australia from Germany wants to see the Great Barrier Reef. The ecological state of the coral reef obviously is poor, the reef is endangered. What does Australia to protect the reef?
I want to start with the size. It is 345 000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Germany in one park. The second thing is: It is still the Great Barrier Reef. It is still majestic. There are of course challenges. But the top part of the reef is in sensational condition by all scientific assessments. The bottom part offshore is very good and in the onshore area are some challenges. The former centre-right government has changed the zoning for fishing and created a complete no-catch-area just over a 100 000 square kilometres. So the fish has been improving significantly. The volume and size of fish has been increasing over the last decade. In terms of water quality: What we have seen in the most recent assessment report about the reef sees a ten percent reduction in sediment, a 16 percent reduction in nitrogen and a 28 percent reduction in pesticides coming from farming. In an area about the size of Germany you have a population of nearly one million living along the coastline and a lot of traditional owners and Aboriginal people who manage the land and run indigenous farms. The health of the reef, it still contains all the values it was recognized for. Having said that. Wither the Wadden Sea or the seas around Hawaai, Indonesia the coral triangle, everywhere there are management challenges.
How do you deal with them?
We came into office just over a year ago. We did inherit five major dredging and disposal plans for the marine park – again just for the memory the size of Germany. We have ended all five. So there will be zero disposal in the marine park. That was a once in a hundred year change. It did require a bit of a battle in Australia. But when I think forward to the years when I am in a rocking chair hopefully I look back at that and say: This was the most significant thing I did in my time in office. The second big thing we have done is that I have just signed a proposal on a permanent ban to all dredging in the marine park. Nobody had ever talked about that in the past 30 years until very recently. But we have done that. I think this is a legal base that never existed. The third is that we have about two billion Australian dollars (1,37 billion Euros) of projected expenditure over the next ten years.
What does the reef mean to you?
For me it is a personal passion. I am a scuba diver. I grew up with my father and travelling to the reef and we would snorkel and later on I would scuba dive. You get one shot at the job. So those changes are significant.
On the other hand: Not long ago you decided to accept the exploration of a huge coal mine in Queensland and the expansion of two harbours not far from the reef to transport that coal.

Greg Hunt (49) is environment minister of the Australien government of Tony Abbot since September 2013.
Greg Hunt (49) is environment minister of the Australien government of Tony Abbot since September 2013.Foto: William West/AFP

The mine is 500 kilometres inland. It was not propose by us. 33 out of 34 decisions were made by the previous government. I went there. It is in a dry, dusty, remote area, as remote as possible in Australia. The previous government had proposed nine terminals and a dredge of 38 million cubic metres. It is now less than one twentieth of the size, 1.7 cubic metres and on land disposal. A dramatic turn around. It is an existing port that is there. It has been there for 30 years. It has been there long before the reef became a World Heritage Site. The Wadden Sea was listet and the sea lines were excluded and the ports were excluded. When Australia did it the ports were included on the basis that they would continue to work as ports. I think Germany three decades on just looked at Australia and said: Ups, let’s just carve the ports out.
Another stressor of the reef is climate change, the warming seas, the acidification of the oceans. This is a problem you cannot solve by yourself. How do you deal with it?
There are two things you can do: emissions reductions and building resilience for the reef. The way you do that is to reduce the already pre existing impacts. All of the science says that the major controllable Australian challenge is water quality, not the dredging. But even then we ended it – forever. A hundred years of farming left their marks on the reef. Just a few weeks ago we put a tender out for the reduction of nutrients like nitrogen. Nitrogen is a problem because it allows crown-of-thorns starfish to grow, the starfish eats the corals. We start with a major tender for farmers and work on a partnership for farmers to reduce the use of fertilizers and to radically reduce the use of pesticides. Now Scientist came up with a single shot of bovine salts, salt from cows, to kill the crown-of-thorns starfish. We have sponsored a very large direct injection programme, where divers up and down the riff look for large populations of the crown-of-thorn starfish and inject them. We see some progress.
And what about climate change?
Nothing less than a global agreement is acceptable. Domestically we just passed a Two-and-a-half-billion- Australian-Dollar-law to directly reduce emissions in Australia. We are buying emission reductions or sponsoring people to reduce emissions, like cleaning up coal mine gas, cleaning up power stations. There is a possibility that the German company MAN might bring technology to Australia to clean up our coal fired power stations. It is really exciting. That technology can reduce our emissions till 2030 around 50 percent. There is no other single thing in Australia that could be more powerful. We overachieved on our Kyoto-I-targets by around five percent. (Till 2012 Australia was allowed to emit eight percent more than 1990, it did emit around four percent more green house gases. Note of the editor!) We are on track to achieve Kyoto II till 2020. And for the Paris treaty we want a legally binding agreement. We understand that the US and China do not want that. But one of the points of agreement with Germany is that we want it to be binding.
When do you plan to pledge the Australian climate goals?
In the first half of this year. What we have to do first is an update on our emission projections. But we are ahead of where we expected to be. We will make a very good offer. Our target to 2020 is minus 12 percent of the emissions of 2005.
How do you make climate policy with a prime minister who went to the election saying: We do not have a problem?
I disagree respectfully with the assumption. We went to the election with a proposal of a two and a half Billion climate fund. The theme is often misrepresented by some on the left.
Sometimes it seems by himself.
Tony Abbott has said on numerous occasions that he accepts the science of climate change. We are disagreeing about the question if we should use an electricity tax or if we should use an auction based purchasing system to reduce emissions. Our system is very much like the Norwegean climate purchasing fund. India has an element of that in it’s mechanism and the whole clean development mechanism under the Kyoto protocol is based on carbon purchasing. It also includes an emission limit on the top 150 emitters. Each of those will have a budget or a quota for it’s emissions. The quota comes into effect on the 1. July 2016. The fund is starting immediatley. The first auction will be before the end of March. We have already very high registration of interest. That gives us a chance to play a part when it comes to the Paris climate summit in December. We try to pledge modestly and aim to overachieve.
How does Australia position itself in the debate about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that shall be decided at the UN general assembly in September?
We are strong supporters of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which end this year. We are equally engaged in the SDGs. The principals we agreed on. In the debate about the actual targets for 2030 we are constructive. Our aid programmes aim at clean water. We just hosted an Asia-Pacific rainforest summit. Australia was the host of the World Park Congress last November. We sat down an Asia Pacific rainforest plan that should half of deforestation in 2020 and end deforestation by 2030. That was focussed on sustainable forest management both on emissions but on forest communities too. In Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia many communities are struggling because others came in and took over the rainforest. That to me is the definition of a sustainable development challenge.
My last question is the one about immigration and Australia.
Immigration is not an issue in Australia. There was the issue of 1200 people who drowned coming with people smugglers to Australia. No country can accept 1200 deaths at sea. But that is under control. Immigration itself is a virtually non-politicized issue. The people smuggling has very strong reactions. But immigration is deep strong bipartisan support by making sure to stop the death at sea. That insures that there is a national consensus about that. We have people from all over the world. They come for family for business and humanitarian reasons. All these three arms are supported. Diversity in Australia is very established and both parties try to keep that out of political wrangling.
Last December there was a terror attack in Sydney. And the attacker seems to have been an Islamist. Did that change anything?
No. Paris followed very shortly afterwards. There was fast reaction that there would be no blowback into the Muslim community. And there was not any. It was a good part of Australia. And a similar thing happened after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Simply in extending support for the Muslim community. There was not even an extreme movement in the country. That side is strong in Australia.

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