24 Jul 2021

Great Barrier Reef dodges 'in danger' label after lobbying

3:09 pm on 24 July 2021

UNESCO won't add Australia's Great Barrier Reef to its 'in danger list' this year after Environment Minister Sussan Ley's whirlwind diplomatic efforts won enough support to override the UN body's scientific advisers.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland.

Photo: 123rf

However, the body has called for a reactive monitoring mission to visit Australia to study the reef's current condition.

The timetable was faster than what was proposed by some countries - following lobbying by Australia - which would have seen the reef not considered for inclusion again until 2023.

Ley welcomed the decision and said it was never about Australia "hiding from the challenges facing the reef or the pressures of climate change".

"It has been about ensuring a fair and transparent process for the reef and the people who work tirelessly to protect it," she said.

"Our concern was always that UNESCO had sought an immediate 'in danger' listing without appropriate consultation, without a site visit and without all the latest information, and it is clear that this process has concerned not only Australia but other nations as well."

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) advises UNESCO on scientific matters, and had urged the committee to act urgently, quoting an Australian government report from 2019, which stated: "The window of opportunity to improve the Reef's long-term future is now."

Listing now 'makes no sense'

Speaking to the IUCN committee, Ley said the draft decision to immediately inscribe the reef on the in danger list "made no sense".

Her comments echoed those of a dozen other countries that moved an amendment to the draft decision, which delayed further consideration of including the reef on the list until 2023.

Norway proposed a further amendment, pulling the timetable forward one year, which was unanimously agreed to.

Conservation groups, which hoped having the reef included on the list would spur action to save it, were disappointed by the result.

"[This] is a missed opportunity to shine a light on the Australian government's neglect of a natural wonder that remains at great risk due to the impacts of climate change," Greenpeace said after the decision.

But Imogen Zethoven, an adviser to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the result was not what the government was hoping for either.

"They wanted to delay any reporting to the end of next year and then delay the committee considering the reef again until 2023. They did not get that," she said.

WWF Australia described the decision as putting Australia on "probation".

"Business as usual on climate will not prevent an in danger listing in a year's time," said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF Australia.

Labor environment spokeswoman Terri Butler said the decision was "kicking the can down the road".

"An 'in danger' listing would be a significant further blow to Queensland's tourism industry, with operators and local economies already reeling from the pandemic," she said.

Heart Reef, a unique coral formation in the Great Barrier Reef

Heart Reef, a unique coral formation in the Great Barrier Reef Photo: 123RF

Australia's climate policies 'under pressure'

Last month the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre recommended the reef be added to UNESCO's in danger list, mostly because of the effect of climate change.

It noted that a plan for the reef's recovery needed to "provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change" that need to be in line with the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement commits countries to try to stop warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Even with 1.5C of warming, coral reefs are expected to decline by up to 90 percent.

But Australia's current commitment to reduce greenhouse gasses is in line with 3C of warming, according to Climate Tracker.

And unlike most of Australia's major trading partners, the country has not committed to net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

But several countries that spoke at the UNESCO meeting praised Australia's efforts to combat climate change.

The representative of Ethiopia said: "We appreciate the efforts of the Australian government with regard to its policies to promote green energy and to mitigate the effects of climate change."

And the representative of Hungary said: "Australia is already playing a constructive role in the actions to address climate change at the global level."

'Politics' behind the decision

After UNESCO scientific advisers recommended the reef be added to its "in danger" list, Ley argued the decision was political rather than scientific.

She then flew to several countries and returned to Australia having secured 12 backers to delay the decision for three years.

It came on top of allegations that China - which was chairing the committee - had interfered with the independent scientific advice to the committee which recommended the reef be listed as in danger.

Several countries spoke out against those claims, defending the role of China in the committee.

Russia said: "We regret that it has provoked some politicised debate and even attacks against the chairmanship of this committee, something that we consider as totally unjustified."

Ethiopia said: "Pressure was put on the chair based on fallacies, including in the media. And we absolutely reject that."

Ley thanked China for its role in the committee.

It is the second time the Great Barrier Reef has been spared inclusion on the "in danger" list.

In 2015, lobbying by then-environment minister Greg Hunt escaped a push to have the reef added to the list. But UNESCO called on Australia to demonstrate it was addressing the key threats, including climate change and water quality.

After that, the reef was hit with an unprecedented three mass bleaching events in five years, driven by climate change and water quality targets that were not met, although significant progress was made towards them.


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