Despite threats from climate change and poor water quality, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has escaped classification as an “endangered” World Heritage Site, at least for now.
The relevant committee of the UN Educational, Scientific, Cultural and Communication Organization (Unesco) decided today at its 44th session in Fuzhou, China, not to discuss the world’s largest reef again until 2023. Conservationists were shocked and sharply criticized Australia.
Australia wanted to prevent damage to its image
The politically staffed committee nevertheless followed Australia’s wish, which wanted to prevent damage to its image and was able to get the majority of the 21 member countries on its side. Australia is now to be given more time and submit a new report on the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef by December 2022. However, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) stressed in the discussion that the reef already met “all criteria” for an entry as “endangered.”
The World Heritage Committee also referred in the resolution to a 2019 report by Australia that said the outlook had worsened from “poor” to “very poor. “Accelerated action at all possible levels is needed.” Reference was made to efforts in the fight against climate change under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees if possible. Water quality also needs to be improved to create opportunities for reef recovery, he said.
Deterioration is “more widespread” than thought
“Climate change continues to be the greatest threat,” the committee quoted from the report. Other threats include coastal development, surface runoff on land and human use, it said. The unique universal value of the natural site remains intact but has “deteriorated,” it noted. An expert from the World Heritage Center (WHC) stressed in the deliberations that the deterioration was “faster and more widespread” than previously thought.
The unique reef off Australia’s east coast stretches more than 340,000 square kilometers. It is considered one of the most breathtaking natural wonders on Earth, but is on the verge of collapse: three devastating coral bleaching events within the past five years, as well as industrialization in coastal regions, have taken a heavy toll on it.
But to prevent it from being placed on the Red List of endangered World Heritage Sites, the Australian government invited more than a dozen ambassadors on a snorkeling trip to the reef in advance of the meeting. Nine of the 15 diplomats were reportedly from countries that have voting rights on the committee. The request for postponement was made by Mali, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Russia and the small Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, among others.
Greenpeace sharply criticizes Australia
The environmental organization Greenpeace sharply criticized the coal country Australia: “The Australian government has once again managed to get away with a black eye – that’s shocking” , said marine biologist Sandra Schöttner. “Strong climate and biodiversity protection can no longer wait until 2023.” If you want to boast about the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and protect its biodiversity, you also need to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
Unfortunately, he said, Australia is one of the few countries that has not committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. “And the Great Barrier Reef has been paying the far too high price for far too long,” Schöttner said. “This natural wonder and its inhabitants are massively threatened by the climate crisis, but Australia just keeps fueling it.”