The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has warned Australia about the condition of the Great Barrier Reef with “the utmost concern and regret,” and plans to reevaluate in 2022.
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is a World Heritage Site. Yet the country has now been placed back on probation over its declining health. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee did not immediately place the Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger –– but it may do so in 2022, when a decision will be made.
“The decision that passed the committee on Friday makes a clear statement that climate change is the biggest threat to the GBR and that keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees [Celsius] or below is vital to give the Reef a future,” WWF-Australia’s Head of Oceans, Richard Leck tells TRT World in an email.
“Currently Australia’s climate policy is more consistent with a 2.5-3 degree global temperature rise. The Committee’s decision makes it clear the Australian Government must implement a far more ambitious climate policy that will give the Reef a fighting chance.”
According to Leck, the Committee first placed the country on probation around a decade ago. He notes that part of the reason why the Committee’s work in the first half of the decade was so influential was due to their willingness to consider ‘In Danger’ listing for the reef from 2012-2015. He points out that the Committee was focused on the big local threats to the Reef’s health at the time, such as massive port development for expansion of the coal and gas industry, water pollution from poor farming practices and destructive fishing practices.
The result of the first probation on Australia was the 2015 presentation of Australia’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan to the Committee. Leck calls it “a major conservation breakthrough” and says it “demonstrated the power of the World Heritage Convention to effect positive change.”
The Australian government recently objected to the Great Barrier Reef potentially being placed on the ‘In Danger’ status, suggesting it was a politically motivated move on China’s part. The GBR narrowly avoided being stuck with the label, with a new evaluation scheduled for 2022.
Asked what happens when a World Heritage Site is placed on an ‘In Danger’ status and why it must be avoided, Leck says that the Reef’s World Heritage status is “an enormous source of national pride” as well as holding significance economically: ”Pre-Covid, the Reef was worth about $6 billion per year to the Australian economy and it provides employment to 60,000 people. An In-Danger listing would be damaging both to Australia’s global reputation and our tourism industry and the jobs it provides.”
There have been three mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020. Leck says scientists estimate that between 30 to 50 percent of shallow waters were lost after the 2016/7 bleaching events, while in 2020, despite the coral bleach being very extensive there was “less mortality.” On a positive note, Leck refers to recent reports that indicate the reef is “still resilient and can recover from these events”. Yet he warns that “the higher global temperatures rise, the more frequent extreme events like coral bleaching and cyclones will happen.”
A media release by the WWF refers to the Australian government’s own Reef Water Quality report cards. To Leck, they reveal that there is “some progress” in improving water quality and that some landholders are making efforts to improve their practices. Alarmingly, the key finding, he highlights, is that the Queensland and Australian Governments are “not on track” to meet the targets that were committed to the World Heritage Committee in 2015.
While Australia’s efforts alone won’t fix global climate change, Leck believes the country needs to “do its fair share” to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. “We are blessed with some of the best renewable energy resources in the world,” he points out, “and as such, we have a significant opportunity.
“We can harness our endless sunshine, huge land areas, powerful winds, and world-class expertise to lead the world in protecting the Reef from global warming. While the most important issue for Australia to tackle is climate change, local management issues are also important. Tackling water quality, eliminating destructive fishing practices and protecting threatened species are also key to giving the Reef a fighting chance for the future.”
Thumbnail photo: Bleached magnificent sea anemone (Heteractis magnifica) with clownfish (Amphiprion percula). Lizard Island, March 2016. (CoralWatch / WWF-Aus)
Headline photo: Coral bleaching at Vlasoff Cay in the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, March 2017. (Biopixel)