Not Declaring the Great Barrier Reef as ‘In Danger’ Only Postpones the Inevitable

Not Declaring the Great Barrier Reef as ‘In Danger’ Only Postpones the Inevitable

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After a lot anticipation, the World Heritage Committee on Friday decided against itemizing the Great Barrier Reef as “at risk”.

The determination ignored the advice of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre — a suggestion primarily based on analyses by Australian scientific consultants of the reef’s declining situation.

In some ways, the result from the committee was anticipated. The Australian authorities fought very onerous towards this determination, together with lobbying all of the committee members, because it has finished in earlier years.

There was consensus amongst a lot of the 21 committee members to not apply the in-danger itemizing right now. Instead, Australia has been requested to host a joint UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission to the reef and supply an up to date report by February, 2022.

This determination has solely postponed the inevitable. It doesn’t change the irrefutable proof that harmful impacts are already occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. Some, resembling coral bleaching and dying from marine heatwaves, will proceed to speed up.

The reef at the moment meets the standards for in-danger itemizing. That’s unlikely to enhance throughout the subsequent 12 months.

Political distractions

Last month, the World Heritage Committee launched its draft decision to record the reef as in-danger, noting the values for which the reef was internationally recognised had declined because of a wide range of factors. This contains water pollution and coral bleaching.

The draft determination had expressed considerations that Australia’s progress:

has been largely inadequate in assembly key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan [and the] deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the [Reef has] been extra fast and widespread than was beforehand evident.

A photograph depicting two threats to the Great Barrier Reef: coal ships anchored close to Abbot Point and a flood plume from the Burdekin River (February 2019); such plumes can carry pollution and particles to the Great Barrier Reef. Matt Curnock

In response, the federal government claimed it was “blindsided”, and mentioned the UNESCO Secretariat hadn’t adopted due course of in recommending the choice. It additionally urged there had been undue interference from China in making the draft suggestion.

These had been political distractions from the true points. During final night time’s debate, one committee member strongly refuted the claims about interference from China and expressed considerations the dialogue had grow to be unnecessarily politicised.

Following the draft determination, the intense campaign to reverse the choice started, with surroundings minister Sussan Ley endeavor a whirlwind go to to quite a few international locations to fulfill with ambassadors.

The authorities even hosted international ambassadors from 13 international locations and the EU, taking them on a snorkelling journey. And it reported a rise in coral cowl over the previous two years as excellent news, ignoring the very fact the assessment had cautioned the restoration was pushed by weedy coral species most weak to future local weather impacts.

This wasn’t the primary time Australia has undertaken important ranges of diplomatic lobbying of World Heritage Committee members to realize help for its place.


In 1999, Australia additionally strongly opposed the really useful in-danger listing of Kakadu National Park, following the Jabiluka mine proposal. This led to a unprecedented assembly of the committee being convened in Paris, particularly to debate this matter.

More concentrate on local weather change

During its present assembly, the World Heritage Committee authorised the draft UNESCO Climate Action Policy, which is able to information the safety and conservation of World Heritage websites.

This coverage might be ratified on the UN General Assembly later this yr, however the truth it’s nonetheless a draft was certainly one of a number of excuses the Australian authorities made as to why the reef shouldn’t be “singled out”.

The reef is without doubt one of the most iconic marine protected areas on the planet. Given Australia continues to have one of many highest per capita emission charges on the earth, and has extra capability to deal with local weather change than most different international locations, it makes sense for the highlight to be on Australia’s actions.

Marine heatwaves and water air pollution are main threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Sam Power.

Not surprisingly, local weather change was the central concern in the course of the committee’s debate final night time. UNESCO is now extra targeted on local weather change than ever earlier than, recognising the “window of alternative to behave” is now.

The delegates broadly agreed local weather change stays probably the most severe risk, not simply to the Great Barrier Reef but in addition to many different iconic World Heritage properties. Venice, for instance, additionally dodged a potential in-danger listing at this assembly.

Rather than making difficult selections now, it’s clear the committee is solely kicking the can down the highway.

Some committee members remarked in the course of the assembly about the necessity to “keep the credibility of the Convention” and acknowledged that the world is watching. The highlight on the reef, and on Australia, will solely intensify in coming years.

The authorities’s own report from 2019 reveals lots of the values for which the reef was inscribed on the World Heritage record in 1981 have declined in current many years. Yet each delay weakens Australia’s declare it’s doing all it could to guard the reef.

Later this yr, the following major international climate summit might be held in Glasgow, Scotland, the place much more consideration might be positioned on Australia’s insufficient actions.

An in-danger itemizing is just not a punishment

It’s essential to keep in mind that all through the assembly, UNESCO and the committee made it clear an in-danger itemizing is just not a sanction or punishment. Rather, it’s a name to the worldwide neighborhood {that a} World Heritage property is underneath risk, thereby triggering actions to guard it for future generations.

Now, greater than ever, it is very important develop efforts to scale back the domestically manageable impacts, resembling poor water high quality, whereas quickly accelerating motion on local weather change.

These efforts should happen domestically, nationally and globally. Reducing greenhouse gasoline emissions is vital to cease the worst of the impacts now unfolding, not simply on the reef, however on all of the world’s pure and cultural heritage.

This article is republished from The Conversation underneath a Creative Commons license. Authors: Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, Associate Professor, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University.

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Cover picture of the Great Barrier Reef by Manny Moreno.

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