Australia foils Unesco attempt to downgrade Great Barrier Reef

Published July 24, 2021
A man snorkels in an area called the "Coral Gardens" on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. — Reuters/File
A man snorkels in an area called the "Coral Gardens" on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. — Reuters/File

CANBERRA: Australia on Friday garnered enough international support to defer for two years an attempt by the United Nations cultural organisation to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef's World Heritage status because of damage caused by climate change.

Unesco had recommended that its World Heritage Committee add the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem off the northeast Australian coast to the World Heritage in Danger list, mainly due to rising ocean temperatures.

But Australian-proposed amendments to the draft decision at a committee meeting in China on Friday deferred the in danger question until 2023.

In the meantime, a monitoring mission will visit the reef to determine how the impact of climate change can be managed.

Representatives of 16 of the 21 committee nations apart from Australia spoke in favor of the amendments before the committee accepted the position without a vote. Only Norway argued for the reef to be listed in danger. The committee usually makes consensus decisions.

Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the virtual meeting that downgrading the reefs status before the committee had finalised its own climate change policy made no sense.

“Delegates, we ask only two things: time for experts to see first hand our commitment to the reef, its present condition and our management, and for the final climate policy to provide a consistent framework for addressing the impacts of climate change on all World Heritage properties, she said from Australia, where she in in quarantine after lobbying delegates in Europe and the Middle East on the decision.”

In 2014, Australia was warned that an in danger listing was being considered rather than being proposed for immediate action.

Australia had time to respond by developing a long-term plan to improve the reefs health called the Reef 2050 Plan.

Since then, the reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and last year. The bleaching damaged two thirds of the coral.

Australia reacted angrily last month when the draft decision was published to remove the network of 2,500 reefs covering 348,000 square kilometers from the World Heritage list it joined 40 years ago for its outstanding universal value. The in danger listing is one step away from losing all World Heritage standing.

This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it, Ley said at the time.

Many in Australia’s conservative government saw the move as an attempt to pressure it into committing to reducing the nations greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 and to stop allowing coal mines to be expanded.

In arguing for the reefs downgrade, Unesco World Heritage Centers marine program coordinator, Fanny Douvere, referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes conclusion that global emissions needed to fall to zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Accelerated action on climate change on all possible levels, in accordance with the 1.5 degree target under the Paris Agreement for Climate Change, and the recovery of the property from poor water quality are both vital and are urgent to secure the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef for present and for future generations, Douvere said.

Greenpeace said in a statement that the committee had missed an opportunity to shine a light on Australia’s neglect of a natural wonder.

The Chinese host of the committee meeting in the city of Fuzhou this week defended the proposed in danger listing against Australian government suspicion that China influenced the finding for political reasons.

Australia, as a member state of the World Heritage Committee, should ... attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and earnestly fulfill the duty of World Heritage protection instead of making groundless accusations against other states, said Tian Xuejun, the Chinese vice minister of education and the president of this year’s session.

Chinas representative said during the debate that his nation supports the emerging consensus to defer the in danger question.

Before the committees ruling, Jodie Rummer, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said the in danger designation was needed to get Australia to act on climate change.

“I think that’s the wake-up call that we need here in Australia, very much so, Rummer said. It’s the wake-up call that we need to cut our emissions and commit to net zero. It’s the wake-up call that we need to really put that spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.”

The deferral sidelines Australia’s management of the reef as an issue at elections due by May next year at which the government will seek a fourth three-year term.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2021


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