Australia succeeds in delaying Unesco downgrade of Great Barrier Reef

Monitoring mission will instead determine how impact of climate change can be managed, committee agrees

Sam Hancock
Friday 23 July 2021 17:55
<p>In this file photo, a diver  monitors the health of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast</p>

In this file photo, a diver monitors the health of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast

Australia has secured a two-year deferment against Unesco’s attempt to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage status over damage caused to it by climate change.

It comes after 16 of the UN’s 21 World Heritage Committee nations voted in favour of postponing the possible shift of Australia’s reef to the World Heritage in Danger list, until 2023.

Unesco had recommended members add the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem to the danger list predominantly due to rising ocean temperatures. But after Australian-proposed amendments to the draft decision were accepted at a committee meeting in China on Friday, it was decided the decision would be delayed.

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

Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley told the virtual meeting that downgrading the reef’s 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.

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

The nation duly responded by developing a long-term plan to improve the reef’s health titled the Reef 2050 Plan. However, since then the reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching, caused by the unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and last year – damaging 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 348,000sq km, 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 World Heritage standing altogether - a move thrust upon Liverpool on Thursday after Unesco found planned developments to the city’s waterfront, including a new Everton FC stadium, resulted in a “serious deterioration” of the historic site.

Before the UN committee’s ruling, Jodie Rummer, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said the “in danger” designation was the “wake up call” Australia needed to act on climate change.

“I think that’s the wake-up call that we need here in Australia, very much so,” Ms Rummer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “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.”

Meanwhile, Ms Ley said she believes the decision to downgrade Australia’s status was “flawed”, adding: “Clearly there were politics behind it.”

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

China, which hosted this week’s committee meeting in the city of Fuzhou, defended the proposed “in danger” listing against Australia’s political-backed theories.

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

During the meeting, though, China’s representative ultimately voted alongside the others in favour of deferring the “in danger” question.

AP contributed to this report

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