Media Release Climate Change

New report urges the Australian Government to ramp up climate actions to protect Great Barrier Reef as World Heritage Committee decision looms

June 3, 2021

The Australian Marine Conservation Society is urging the World Heritage Committee (WHC) to request that Australia commits to ambitious climate action compatible with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to protect the Great Barrier Reef in a new report.

At stake is a possible “World Heritage In Danger” status for Australia’s national treasure.

UNESCO is expected to release the WHC’s draft decision about the Reef imminently in its Great Barrier Reef State of Conservation report. The WHC will meet in July to finalise the decision.

An ‘in danger’ listing would mean the WHC considers the Reef’s Outstanding Universal Value – for which it was inscribed as a World Heritage site 40 years ago – is threatened.

Report author Imogen Zethoven said such a listing is intended to help countries take corrective actions.

Her report highlights the influence the WHC has had on Australian Reef policy across the last 10 years, leading to the introduction of water quality regulations and targets, restrictions on port developments and the establishment of net-free fishing zones.

“If this influence can also be applied to government action on climate change, the future for our Reef and Australia’s other environmental wonders, would be brighter,” said Ms Zethoven.

“Our report urges the Committee to ask the Australian Government – as the State Party to the World Heritage Convention – to include a new round of protection measures in an updated Reef 2050 Plan, due out later this year. These should include a commitment to doing Australia’s fair share to limit global temperature increase to the long term goal of the Paris Agreement – 1.5C – and accelerated action and investment to improve reef water quality and reduce fishing pressure.

“The Australian Government should be asked to report on progress by the end of next year.

“If the measures are insufficient and plans to achieve them are not detailed enough, the report recommends that the Committee should consider inscribing the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage In Danger,” said Ms Zethoven.

“The last time the WHC considered listing the Reef ‘in danger’ was 2014. This prompted the Australian and Queensland Governments to develop the Reef 2050 Plan which the Committee welcomed in 2015. However, the Committee also put the governments ‘on probation’, deciding to see if Australia’s Reef 2050 Plan could halt the decline,” said Ms Zethoven.

“Since then, we’ve seen the mass bleaching events; the Australian government’s GBR Outlook Report in 2019 downgrading the Reef’s outlook to ‘very poor’; the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 Plan not being met; and IUCN’s outlook report downgrading the Reef’s outlook to ‘critical’.”

“Our Reef has a future if our political leaders listen to the science and the community and take the necessary actions on climate change, water quality and fisheries,” said Ms Zethoven.

Ms Zethoven’s report, titled The Last Decade, is available here.

Key moments in the WHC’s examination of Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef

  • 2011: Prompted by plans to develop an LNG processing Plant on Curtis Island in the GBR, the WHC expressed ‘extreme concern’ and requested the Australian government to invite UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and IUCN to undertake a monitoring mission of the Reef.
  • 2012: The mission found a rapid increase in the number of proposals along the Reef coastline for coal and gas developments, port expansions and dredging. Following the mission report, the WHC said it would consider listing the Reef as ‘in danger’ unless progress was made by Australian politicians in protecting the Reef’s ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.
  • 2014: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s second Outlook Report was released concluding that the overall outlook for the Reef had worsened since its last report in 2009. The WHC continued to call for better conservation policy for the Reef.
  • 2015: Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan, containing 151 actions, is submitted by the Australian government to the WHC. The plan responds to many of the WHC’s requests and responses concerning the Reef, and includes pollution reduction targets, a ban on the dumping of dredge spoil, restrictions on port developments and the establishment of three net-free fishing zones. The Plan was welcomed by the Committee, but it did not address the threat of climate change.
  • 2016: First severe mass bleaching event leading to extensive coral mortality mainly in the northern third of the Reef. No new climate policy commitments from the Australian government.
  • 2017: Second severe mass bleaching event, mainly affecting the central third of the Reef. WHC expresses ‘utmost concern’ about the impacts of climate change on the Reef and calls on all countries to undertake ‘the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement’.
  • 2018: The new Queensland Government passed stronger laws to protect forests and woodlands to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution entering the Reef and curb coastal development. Stronger water quality targets were also developed. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation received $444m from the federal government to deliver projects to protect the Reef. The IPCC released its special report on 1.5°C which projected that coral reefs would further decline by 70-90%, even at 1.5°C of warming.
  • 2019: The GBRMPA released its third Outlook report which said the overall outlook for the Reef was ‘very poor’ and the integrity of the WH values were being challenged. The report elicited no change in national climate policy.
  • 2020: Third mass coral bleaching, the most widespread ever recorded, mainly affecting the southern third of the Reef. The vision of the Reef 2050 Plan, endorsed by the WHC in 2015, to ensure the Reef improves on its Outstanding Universal Value every decade between now and 2050 is no longer achievable. IUCN downgrades the Reef’s outlook to critical.
  • 2021: Water quality report card shows progress in some catchments but there is still a long way to go to meet targets promised to the WHC.