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United Nations recommends Great Barrier Reef be added to world heritage ‘in danger’ list

Landscape of the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia, 2018. A marine heat wave resulted in severe bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

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The Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia, showing the bleaching of coral following marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017.
Photo: AFP

A UN delegation has again recommended the Great Barrier Reef be added to the World Heritage ‘in danger’ list, and urged “ambitious, rapid and sustained” action on climate change to protect the site.

The UNESCO report comes after an official visit to monitor the reef in March, and recommends the Commonwealth and Queensland governments both adopt stronger emissions reductions policies consistent with stopping warming at 1.5C.

It cites frequent mass bleachings and increased water acidity among the increased threats to corals, impacts which can be attributed to uncurbed emissions.

UNESCO has advised greater investment in water quality, recommendations which will see mounting pressure on the Albanese government.

Although Labor has strengthened Australia’s climate policies and invested more in the Great Barrier Reef, its policies and actions are not in line with the recommendations made by the UNESCO report.

“This is one of the first big tests for the new Australian government to show the world that on climate and nature we are really switching from being laggards to leaders,” said Richard Leck from WWF-Australia.

In a statement, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef Nita Green said, “since the Monitoring Mission undertook their work, the Government has engaged in constructive dialogue with UNESCO, and taken a number of significant steps forward.”

Queensland environment minister Megan Scanlon emphasised the same point in a statement.

“Since this report was written, things have changed. We finally have a government in Canberra working with Queensland and acting on climate change,” she said.

Long-held concerns over the state of the Reef

Divers on the Great Barrier Reef at Lady Elliot Island.

Divers on the Great Barrier Reef
Photo: AFP

In June 2021, then-environment minister Sussan Ley said she was “blindsided” by a draft decision to inscribe the Reef on the ‘in danger’ list, arguing normal process had not been followed.

The draft decision was backed up by the UN’s expert scientific advisers, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who refuted Ley’s claim.

“There have been at least six exchanges with the government of Australia, all of that is very clearly detailed in the draft decision,” said Fanny Douvere from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in June 2021.

“It’s just simply irrevocably clear where the reef is heading and that’s just the reality that is reflected in this draft decision.”

But after Ley embarked on a whirlwind global lobbying tour UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, made up of representatives from 19 countries, over-ruled the IUCN’s scientific advice.

Instead of an immediate listing, the committee decided to send a delegation – known as the Reactive Monitoring Mission – to inspect the Reef in March 2022, ahead of making a decision.

Strong recommendations

The report noted that mass bleachings, once unheard of, are now regular on the Great Barrier Reef, because of greenhouse gas emissions.

The acidity of the water has increased 26 per cent, which has slowed the growth of corals and made them more susceptible to damage. That too was caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, water quality targets set by the Queensland and Federal governments have not been met.

In addition to those threats to corals, destructive gill net fishing is still allowed in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which kills dugongs, turtles, dolphins and protected shark species.

The report lists 10 “high priority” recommendations and 12 other recommendations.

Among its high priority recommendations is that the government update its climate change commitments to be consistent with stopping global warming at 1.5C above pre industrial temperatures.

The Labor government has increased its targets significantly since being elected this year, now committing to reduce emissions by 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But that target is consistent with more than 2 degrees of warming, according to Climate Analytics, an international climate science and policy institute.

Scientists have said Australia needs to reduce emissions by about 74 per cent to be consistent with stopping warming at 1.5C.

The report also recommends:

  • Urgent action to stop sediment runoff by repairing gullies and stopping the clearing of native vegetation.
  • An end to destructive gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
  • A reduction in runoff from sugarcane and banana farming

Plibersek: Labor ‘stepping up’

Since the mission’s visit in March, Australia has seen a change in leadership, with the Labor government increasing investment in the Great Barrier Reef and strengthening its emissions targets.

In its report, UNESCO specifically notes the government’s 2050 net zero emissions target remains “aspirational” and “is not yet legislated”. But the Labor government has now legislated the target.

The report also criticises moves by Australia to build new dams in the Great Barrier Reef water catchment, which it notes is “clearly in contradiction to the Reef 2050 Plan”. However the Labor government pulled funding for those projects in the recent budget.

Nevertheless, some of the biggest issues raised by the report are yet to be fully addressed by the government, including climate targets aligned with the Paris Agreement, water quality targets and fishing controls.

In a joint statement, both Plibersek and Green noted the context in which the report was originally written.

“We understand that the people who live and work on the Reef might find the report alarming,” they said.

“With the election of the new Labor Government, Australia has stepped up to play our part, working in partnership with the Queensland Government.”

Given the report was written before those changes occurred, and the government is relatively new, Richard Leck from WWF-Australia said the In Danger listing should be deferred until 2024.

That would “provide the Australian Government the opportunity to work in partnership with the Queensland Government to adopt and make progress on UNESCO’s report,” he said.

But he said the recommendations should be adopted in full by the governments.

“UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are the global experts on protecting World Heritage areas. Their recommendations should be accepted by the Australian and Queensland governments,” he said.

Dr Lissa Schindler from the Australian Marine Conservation Society agreed.

“It’s no surprise that the reef is in trouble,” she said.

She said the government has taken steps towards greater climate action and water quality, but is far from implementing what’s recommended in the report.

“Those recommendations are really what the governments need to address to avoid any kind of In Danger listing.”

Ministers Plibersek and Green said: “It’s important to note this is not a UNESCO proposal for listing the Reef as ‘in danger’. This is a technical report and the World Heritage Centre is yet to make a recommendation, which would be considered by the World Heritage Committee.”

Normally, the UN would publish its report and draft decisions on recommendations for the ‘in danger’ list simultaneously, but the draft decision can only be made ahead of a World Heritage Committee meeting, said Mr Leck.

That process has been in a deadlock for months due to controversy around Russia’s war in Ukraine. With Russia the chair of the committee until last week, dozens of countries boycotted a planned meeting in June.

As a result, the UN released its report without a draft decision. A draft decision based on the report is expected to be presented to a World Heritage Committee meeting in 2023.


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