Australia on Friday avoided having the Great Barrier Reef listed as an endangered world heritage site by UNESCO, despite extensive climate change-fuelled damage to the ecosystem’s corals.
After a concerted lobbying effort by Canberra, members of the World Heritage Committee — including leading fossil fuel producers Russia and Saudi Arabia — voted to give Australian conservation efforts more time.
The group brushed aside UNESCO experts’ recommendation that the reef’s World Heritage status be downgraded because of dramatic coral decline, instead telling Australia to report on the reef’s status by 2022.
The 2,300-kilometre-long (1,400-mile-long) ecosystem has suffered three mass coral bleaching events since 2016, caused by rising ocean temperatures due to global warming.
Areas once teeming with vibrant corals have become lifeless washed-out wastelands, and two-thirds of the reef is believed to have been damaged in some way.
Despite the damage, the reef remains a vital tourist draw for Australia, which had feared an “in danger” label could deter post-pandemic visitors.
Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley had flown to Paris earlier this month to personally lobby member states on the committee, while key ambassadors were invited on a reef snorkelling trip.
On Friday, Ley welcomed the decision, thanking “esteemed delegates for recognising Australia’s commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef”.
– ‘Day of infamy’ –
Environmental groups decried the decision as a political stitch-up.
“This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history,” said Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.
“This is not an achievement — it is a day of infamy for the Australian government.”
A decision on the reef’s status had already been postponed from 2015, when Australia successfully waged a similar diplomatic campaign and committed billions of dollars to reef protection.
“This is history repeating itself,” said Climate Council spokesman Will Steffen.
“Australia must stop censoring science, and start taking the steps we know are required to help protect the reef,” he added.
Though Australian government scientists say corals have shown signs of recovery in the past 12 months, they admit the reef’s long-term outlook remains “very poor”.
As well as coral bleaching, the reef is also susceptible to damage from cyclones and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat the coral.
UNESCO had accused Australia of failing to meet key water quality and land management targets, while also taking aim at the country’s conservative government for its lacklustre climate efforts.
Canberra is facing growing international criticism for refusing to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
The government has said it hopes to meet the target “as soon as possible” without harming the country’s fossil fuel-reliant economy.
The World Heritage Committee asked UNESCO to send a monitoring mission to inspect the reef, after Canberra criticised the agency for relying on existing reports to make its recommendation.
The decision comes after Venice also dodged the endangered list on Thursday, following Italy’s move to ban large cruise ships from sailing into the city centre.
However, Liverpool’s waterfront was deleted from the list entirely, amid concerns about overdevelopment, including plans for a new football stadium.
Why is the Great Barrier Reef’s UNESCO status under discussion?
Brisbane, Australia (AFP) July 23, 2021 – After years of climate-worsened damage to its vibrant corals, Australia’s vast Great Barrier Reef will not be added to UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites.
The reef was one of seven sites globally facing a downgrade at a meeting in China over issues including ecological damage, overdevelopment, overtourism and security concerns.
But Australia has successfully averted an “in danger” listing despite growing climate change concerns.
– What is the World Heritage list? –
There are more than 1,100 UNESCO World Heritage sites worldwide recognised for their “outstanding universal value” and natural or cultural importance.
The Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest living structure, visible from space — was added to the list in 1981 for its “superlative natural beauty” and extensive biodiversity.
But the list is not permanently fixed and sites can be downgraded or even deleted entirely on the UN body’s recommendation.
While placement on the “in danger” list is not considered a sanction — some nations have their sites added to gain international attention to help save them — others see it as a dishonour.
– Why did the reef risk losing its status? –
The reef has suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years, by some measures losing half its corals since 1995 as ocean temperatures have climbed.
It has also been battered by several cyclones, as climate change drives more extreme weather, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish which eat the coral.
“It’s a warning to the international community and all of humanity that the coral ecosystem is in danger,” Fanny Douvere, the head of UNESCO’s world heritage marine programme, said in June.
UNESCO took aim at Australia for its lacklustre climate efforts, as the government resists calls to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 while seeking to protect its resource-reliant economy.
Australian government scientists say the corals have made a comeback over the past year, but acknowledge that will not improve the ecosystem’s “very poor” long-term outlook.
– How did Australia respond? –
When the UN threatened to downgrade the reef’s World Heritage listing in 2015, Australia created a “Reef 2050” plan and poured billions of dollars into protection.
This time around, Canberra launched a major lobbying effort, sending the country’s environment minister to Paris to meet World Heritage Committee members and taking key ambassadors on a reef snorkelling trip.
There were fears that an “in danger” listing could dent the massive global appeal of the reef — the glittering jewel in Australia’s tourism crown.
The 2,300-kilometre-long (1,400-mile-long) ecosystem was worth an estimated US$4.8 billion a year in tourism revenue for the Australian economy before the coronavirus pandemic.
Canberra was able to convince the delegates — including leading fossil-fuel producers Russia and Saudi Arabia — to give conservation efforts more time, with Australia told to report back on the reef’s status in 2022.