Our Great Barrier Reef is big, it’s beautiful, and it’s under threat.
On 21 June, United Nations body UNESCO recommended the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due the threat of climate change, the damage sustained from recent mass coral bleaching events and failure to meet water quality targets.
The 21-country World Heritage Committee will meet in an online forum from 16-30 July to decide whether to follow the recommendation.
What is UNESCO?
UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This independent UN body has oversight over World Heritage properties including the Great Barrier Reef through the 1972 World Heritage Convention which Australia signed and ratified.
Why did UNESCO recommend a World Heritage in Danger Listing?
UNESCO recommended the Great Barrier Reef go on the List of World Heritage in Danger primarily due to the threat of climate change which resulted in three mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020. In addition, poor water quality continues to degrade inshore ecosystems, such as coral reefs and seagrass habitats. UNESCO pointed to the Australian government’s inaction on climate change and the failure to meet their promised water quality targets. See the full draft decision here.
What does World Heritage In Danger mean?
From UNESCO’s perspective, the goal of placing a property on the List of World Heritage in Danger is to raise the alarm on threats to World Heritage and work with the state party (the Australian government) to improve conservation efforts so it can return to the World Heritage List. This occurred with the Belize Barrier Reef which was placed on the In Danger List and then, following strong government conservation efforts, was taken off the list.
To come off the In Danger List, the Australian government would have to take corrective measures on climate change and water quality. Namely, the government must develop strong climate change policies in line with limiting global warming to 1.5C, a crucial threshold for coral reefs. Plus the government must ramp up efforts to limit Reef water pollution.
Was Australia blindsided by the decision?
Australia has known for almost a decade that the Great Barrier Reef would be placed on the List of World Heritage In Danger if stronger management actions were not taken to address threats of concern such as climate change and poor water quality. The World Heritage Committee first expressed concern in 2011 at the management of certain threats to the Great Barrier Reef and in 2012, 2013 and 2014 warned that if substantial action was not taken in managing threats that the Reef would be considered for the List of World Heritage in Danger.
In 2015 the Great Barrier Reef came close to being placed on the In Danger list. It was only avoided due to a significant lobbying effort by the Australian and Queensland governments and strong promises to address threats to the Great Barrier Reef through a long term management plan. Australia was given five years to address threats of concern through their long term management plan with a review of the plan’s success to be reviewed in 2020 (this was delayed to 2021 due to COVID).
Since 2015 progress has been made in addressing local management issues through the Reef 2050 Plan. However progress in achieving better water quality has been slow. Action from the Australian government on how it will address climate change, which was noted as a long term threat of concern by the World Heritage Committee, is not addressed in the Reef 2050 Plan. This is despite three major bleaching events severely reducing coral cover and diversity in the Great Barrier Reef.
In 2017 expressed concern with the slow progress in achieving targets of the Reef 2050 Plan, particularly regarding water quality and expressed serious concern around the coral bleaching and mortality that had occurred from the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events.
Were the right processes followed? Was China involved?
The Australian Government has claimed procedural unfairness regarding UNESCO’s draft Great Barrier Reef State of Conservation report, however as noted above Australia has had a decade of notice and warnings to rectify management concerns of threats to the Reef.
The draft decision was entirely the decision of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Senior UNESCO officials have rejected claims that the process was not independent.
One of the key scientific reports used to come to the In Danger recommendation was the Australian government’s 2019 Outlook Report prepared by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) which downgraded the Reef’s outlook to very poor. UNESCO also took into account the three mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 as well as Australian and Queensland government Reef Water Quality Report Cards from 2017-18 and 2019.
China was not involved at all in the creation of the draft decision, as confirmed by senior UNESCO director Dr Douvere. China is the current chair of the World Heritage Committee and, along with the other 20 member countries, will have a say on UNESCO’s draft decision.
What needs to happen from the Australian Government?
The Australian government needs to take responsibility as custodians of our Reef and reduce emissions in line with our fair share to limit global warming to 1.5C. UNESCO acknowledges that all countries must step up on climate change, but that Australia has special responsibilities on climate and local water pollution issues. After all, how can we expect the world to act on climate change with the scale and urgency required to protect our Reef if Australia is not prepared to do its fair share?
Australia’s current climate target is more consistent with a 2.5-3.0 C rise in global average temperature – a level that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs.
The Australian government must stop using taxpayer money on fossil fuel projects and instead invest in clean renewable energy.
Although the Australian and Queensland Governments have made efforts to address local threats, more investment and faster progress needs to be made to meet the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 Plan.
What happens next?
Whether the UNESCO draft decision is ratified or not, the recommendation has once again shown on an international scale how much our Reef needs decent climate policies. It has been embarrassing for the Australian government and this must prompt them to develop climate policies and targets compatible with 1.5 degrees of warming. It’s time for the Australian government to stop the spin and save our Reef.
If the Reef is placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, UNESCO has called for a Reactive Monitoring Mission to Australia to develop a set of “corrective measures” centred around ensuring that a renewed Reef 2050 Plan (a plan developed by the Queensland and Australian Governments to tackle Reef issues) addresses the threat of climate change.