The World Heritage Committee has played a critical role in driving stronger protection policies for the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef was the first reef in the world to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1981 for its Outstanding Universal Values. It is the largest living structure on the planet, unparalleled in beauty and diversity.
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.
In 2022, the experts published a report with 22 solutions to improve the health of our Reef and again recommended that the Reef be added to the ‘in Danger’ list.
Coral bleaching events & World Heritage timeline for Great Barrier Reef
See our report ‘The Last Decade’ for a more detailed history.
World Heritage FAQs
What is the World Heritage Committee?
The World Heritage Committee meets once a year to discuss World Heritage Sites that are facing threats and also decide whether sites are listed as ‘In Danger’.
What Reef reporting has happened this year?
In February 2023. the Australian government had to submit a State of Conservation report to update UNESCO on their management and actions to protect the Reef.
In July 2023, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre released their own State of Conservation Report containing a draft decision for the Great Barrier Reef, to be presented to the World Heritage Committee at their annual meeting in September.
What does UNESCO’s latest State of Conservation Report say?
The State Of Conservation report was prepared by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who are the natural heritage Advisory Body to the World Heritage Committee.
The latest report and draft decision welcomed Australia’s progress to date in addressing the Reactive Monitoring Mission report, but noted with utmost concern that four mass coral bleaching events had occurred since 2016, including an unprecedented bleaching event in 2022 during a traditionally cooler La Nina period.
The draft decision also noted with serious concern the slow progress Australia has made in achieving the water quality targets.
What is a Reactive Monitoring Mission?
When the World Heritage Committee has serious concerns about a World Heritage site under threat or ‘In Danger’, they can request a Reactive Monitoring Mission. A Mission is usually made up of experts from the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN who visit and investigate what’s being done to protect the site, and whether the site meets the criteria for an ‘In Danger’ listing.
The Reef has had two expert missions. The first mission (2012) was in response to Gladstone Harbour and mass industrialisation threats to the Reef. The second mission (2022) was prompted due to serious concerns about climate change and water quality impacts, and involved meeting with a wide range of stakeholders to assess the Reef 2050 Plan.
What are the 22 recommendations in the Reactive Monitoring Mission report?
UNESCO and IUCN wrote a report based on their 2022 mission to the Reef.
The expert report recommends Australia take 22 actions to improve the Reef’s health and also recommended the Reef be put on the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list.
There are 10 High Priority Recommendations and 12 Other Recommendations, including:
- Meeting the 2025 water quality targets by ensuring compliance with the reef protection water quality regulations
- Ending tree clearing in Reef catchments
- More investment in gully repairs to reduce sediment run-off
- Restoring wetlands to reduce nutrient run-off
- Strengthening the Reef 2050 Plan to reduce greenhouse emissions and limit warming to 1.5°C
- Monitoring trawl catches on commercial vessels in the Reef.
What is the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list?
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 the property’s Outstanding Universal Values and to 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.
If our Reef were to be listed as ‘In Danger’ it would be a signal to the world that urgent action is needed to reduce emissions and limit warming to 1.5C.
Why has the Reef not been placed on the ‘In Danger’ list?
The Australian and Queensland governments have been given a temporary reprieve on a potential ‘In Danger’ listing for the Great Barrier Reef. This reflects initial progress in addressing some of the recommendations, however, the ‘In Danger’ recommendation may be considered yet again in 2024 if UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee are not satisfied that the governments are doing enough to tackle all 22 of their recommendations.
What has the government done so far to address the Reef’s threats?
There are a number of positive steps that both the Australian and Queensland governments have made to protect the Reef, including:
- $1.2 billion funding committed to tackle water pollution and poor fishing practices – but this still falls short of what is needed and reforms are not happening quickly enough.
- Commitment to end gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef by 2024.
- The Albanese government has dramatically improved its carbon emissions target to a 43% cut by 2030 (but scientific consensus says that Australia needs to cut emissions by 75% to ensure global warming does not exceed 1.5oC.)
- Queensland’s Energy and Jobs Plan outlines commitments to legislate new targets for renewable energy: decarbonising the QLD energy grid by 70% by 2032, 80% by 2035, and 90% by 2035. However this has not yet been legislated/approved, and Queensland’s current emissions reduction target of 30% by 2030 is the lowest in the country.
The World Heritage Committee will meet in Saudi Arabia in September 2023 to review UNESCO’s report and their draft decision to delay the ‘In Danger’ listing.
The Australian and Queensland governments must submit a progress report to the World Heritage Centre by 1 February 2024, on their implementation of UNESCO and IUCN’s 22 recommendations.
Positive steps to improve the health of the Reef have been welcomed, including the commitment to phase out destructive gillnets, but more work needs to be done.
The Australian and Queensland governments must take urgent actions to address climate change and poor water quality.
What single action should the government prioritise?
As a developed nation Australia should be leading the way in taking action to protect the Reef from climate change. The Australian and Queensland governments must strengthen their emissions reductions targets to reduce carbon emissions and invest in renewable energies.