The Great Barrier Reef actually is “in danger”
In a triumph of politics over science, this week Australia has again avoided an “in-danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, despite its continued decline.
Australia reacted angrily to the draft decision by UNESCO in late June to downgrade the status of the Reef, which was described by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “appalling.” In response, Australia immediately launched an aggressive diplomatic offensive that persuaded the 21-country World Heritage Committee this week to reject UNESCO’s science-based advice. But the reprieve may be short-lived — the committee will assess Australia’s progress again next year.
The committee this week also approved a draft climate policy which clearly states for the first time that climate-related degradation of a World Heritage Area can be used as the basis for in-danger listing. The new policy will be ratified at the UNESCO General Assembly later this year. In the meantime, Australia argued successfully that climate change is a global problem, which should not be applied to Australia’s stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is famous around the world for its outstanding beauty and biodiversity and was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Area in 1981. The size of 70 million football fields, the reef stretches along the coast of the State of Queensland for 1,400 miles, the equivalent distance from Canada to Mexico. It supports a vibrant tourism industry, worth $4 billion each year, that employs 65,000 people.
But, like coral reefs almost everywhere, large swaths of the world-famous Great Barrier Reef are, in fact, in decline. The Australian government’s latest five-year report card on the status of the Great Barrier Reef acknowledged in 2019 that the outlook is very poor and deteriorating. The reef is endangered and struggling to cope with the cumulative impacts of water pollution from agriculture, coastal development, dredging, shipping and especially climate change. Ambitious plans to further develop and export coal and fossil gas across the reef from the adjoining catchment of the World Heritage Area, if they come to fruition, will only cause further damage.
Bowing to earlier pressure from UNESCO, in 2015 Australia developed a new blueprint to stave off an in-danger listing by improving the condition of the Great Barrier Reef — the Reef 2050 Plan. However, the plan has been widely criticized for ignoring Australia’s contribution to climate change. While it includes ambitious targets for reducing runoff of pollution from land, the plan is underfunded and, after 5 years of operation, is failing to reach most of its targets.
Australia clearly views an in-danger listing by UNESCO as an undesirable sanction, which it argues would damage reef tourism. But the purpose of the in-danger list is to highlight World Heritage properties that are in trouble, identify the causes of their decline and address them. Currently, 53 World Heritage properties are on the list. The Galapagos Island and Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System have both gone on, and off, the in-danger list, with no apparent impact on international tourism.
Australia’s recent record on tackling climate change is poor. It is the only country in the world to have legislated and then repealed a carbon pricing mechanism, and Australia has no meaningful policies in place to electrify transport. Australia also has one of the highest levels of per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world, with domestic emissions higher than the UK, France or Italy. On top of its domestic pollution, Australia is the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Russia. In the lead-up to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Australia has not committed yet to net-zero emissions by 2050 and has not increased its comparatively weak Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement since 2015.
So far, Australia has not acknowledged the obvious link between its responsibilities for managing the Great Barrier Reef for future generations, and the damage caused by its ongoing promotion of fossil fuels. Australia can, and must, do better.
Terry Hughes is a distinguished professor at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. His research focuses on reef ecology and climate change Follow him on Twitter: @ProfTerryHughes.
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