The federal government plans to reject a World Heritage Committee recommendation for the Great Barrier Reef to be listed as ‘in danger’.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee has this week warned that the reef has ‘deteriorated from poor to very poor’ and has ‘suffered significantly from coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and most recently in 2020, as a result of global warming’.
In a draft report, the committee found Australia’s progress in meeting key targets for the reef ‘has been largely insufficient’. It has recommended the Great Barrier Reef be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, and has called on the Australian government to ‘address the threat of climate change and water quality’ as part of its policy commitments to the reef.
In a statement on Tuesday, environment minister Sussan Ley indicated that the government would ‘strongly oppose’ the recommendation, arguing that the Great Barrier Reef was ‘the best managed reef in the world’.
“This sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making,” she said.
“If it is being proposed on the basis of the very real threat of global climate change, then there are any number of international World Heritage Sites that should be subject to the same process.
“I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best managed reef in the world for an ‘in danger’ listing.”
Ley said she ‘expressed Australia’s dissatisfaction’ with the committee’s approach in a call with UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay and foreign minister Marise Payne overnight.
“I made it clear that we will contest this flawed approach, one that has been taken without adequate consultation,” she said.
In response to UNESCO’s warning, the Climate Council has called on the Australian government to aim to cut emissions by 75% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035 to give the Great Barrier Reef a chance at survival. The organisation noted that coral reefs would not survive if global average temperatures increase by more than 2°C.
“The situation is dire, and our response should match that. The Reef has been severely damaged by three marine heatwaves in the past five years alone,” Climate Council spokesperson Professor Lesley Hughes said.
“The Australian government has stewardship of one of the world’s most precious and iconic ecosystems, but its continued support for fossil fuels and its lack of effective climate policy means it’s utterly failing to live up to that responsibility.
“It is important we remember that the Reef can be restored, but it needs a break from severe back-to-back bleaching events, and the only way to do that is to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”
The World Heritage Committee will meet virtually next month.