Bulga, Australia – Tony Brown typically spends his days ferrying tourists to and from the Great Barrier Reef. But last month, the charter boat operator flew to Europe where he helped persuade Deutsche Bank and HSBC not to fund the expansion of a coal port that green groups claim could destroy the Unesco World Heritage-listed site.
“The dredging required to build the port is a risk to the reef and the A$6bn tourist industry that depends on it,” says Mr Brown, who has vowed to continue the fight to block what would become the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point in Queensland.
The decision by the banks is the latest victory in a global campaign being waged against the funding of fossil fuel projects and companies by green groups, which allege they are causing catastrophic global warming.
In Australia the threat posed by increasing activism is prompting “Big Coal” to hit back via television and social media campaigns plus the funding of community projects aimed at bolstering the mineral industry’s reputation.
Pioneered by Bill McKibben, founder of the US environmental group 350.org, the “divest from fossil fuel” campaign is chalking up successes with companies such as Storebrand and Rabobank agreeing not to fund coal or shale gas projects. Under pressure from campaigners Norway is reviewing whether its $840bn sovereign wealth fund should stop investing in coal, oil and gas.
“We target the financiers for fossil fuel projects because they can’t proceed without money,” says Ben Pearson of Greenpeace Australia. “When a bank such as Deutsche says it won’t fund a project it also pressurises politicians, who must grant approvals.”
A report by the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment has found the “divest campaign” is growing faster than any other previous attempt to force companies to pull funding from resource projects.
“Divestment is not the main problem,” says Ben Caldecott, co-author of the report. “The risk is it pressurises politicians to introduce tougher regulations and stigmatises companies.”
In Australia the “Save the Reef” campaign is alarming Australia’s resources sector, which has traditionally enjoyed strong government, corporate and public support but is facing rising levels of environmental and local opposition.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest natural feature on earth, an ecosystem created by living organisms. Billions of tiny creatures known as coral polyps have built the reef over the past 600,000 years. Its ecological importance and key position in the Australian psyche has attracted a diverse group of opponents against a port expansion that is needed to develop huge coal mines in the Galilee Basin.
Unesco has warned it may place the reef on its endangered list as a result of the port expansion, which has been approved by the Queensland and Australian federal governments.
The resources industry says campaign groups are peddling misinformation.
“This is the sort of campaign we’ve come to expect against our industry – choose an iconic symbol and claim it is under threat,” says Stephen Galilee, chief executive of the Minerals Council of New South Wales, an industry trade body. “There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to suggest that it is harming the reef.”
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