Australia Successfully Lobbies to Keep Great Barrier Reef Off 'In Danger' List

UNESCO has deferred its decision on the label to 2022 after objections from the Australian government.

Coral Reef

Michael Szonyi / Getty Images

A whirlwind lobbying effort in Europe to delay a downgrade rating by UNESCO of the Great Barrier Reef has won the Australian government a reprieve—for now. 

In June, UNESCO released a draft decision recommending that the Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder stretching over 1,420 miles along the northeast coast of Australia, be added to its list of “World Heritage in Danger.” Since 1972, this designation has existed to help encourage corrective actions to heritage sites under imminent threat. 

UNESCO based its decision on a 2019 report that found the long-term outlook of the reef had been downgraded from poor to very poor, as well as a failure of the Australian government to reach critical water quality and land management targets of the Reef 2050 Plan. Three mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017, and 2020, all caused by rising ocean temperatures, also factored into the “in danger” designation. 

“It is recommended that the corrective measures focus on ensuring that the Reef 2050 Plan’s policy commitments, targets and implementation adequately address the threat of climate change and water quality and take into account the fact that the State Party on its own cannot address the threats of climate change,” the agency wrote. 

Australia goes on the defensive

Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change.
Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change. Brett Monroe Garner / Getty Images

Scientists around the world were quick to offer up support for the proposed designation, noting that while Australia has committed significant financial resources to protect the reef, it has not done enough to curb its own role in reducing carbon emissions. As it stands presently, the country is the second-largest exporter of coal in the world (with nearly 400 tons sent overseas in 2019) and continues to pour hundreds of millions in investments into fossil fuels. 

In a letter supporting the decision, a consortium of scientists, conservationists, and activist celebrities such as Jason Mamoa and Joanna Lumley praised UNESCO and urged greater action to support the Great Barrier Reef. 

“There is still time to save the Great Barrier Reef, but Australia and the world must act now,” the statement says. “We commend Unesco for its leadership. We urge the world heritage committee to endorse Unesco’s recommendation.”

The Australian government, however, was less than willing to accept this new level of alarm over the reef’s health. In a June 22 statement, Sussan Ley, Australia’s minister for the environment, called the draft decision “stunning” and said it was based on “a desktop review with insufficient first-hand appreciation of the outstanding science-based strategies being jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments.”

Ley then proceeded to go on an 8-day lobbying effort, meeting with representatives of 18 countries throughout Europe in an effort to block the decision. To further bolster their case, Australian officials also organized a fact-finding snorkeling trip on the Great Barrier Reef for ambassadors from 14 countries. 

In the end, Ley’s efforts paid off and The World Heritage Committee agreed to delay UNESCO’s recommendation on the Great Barrier Reef’s status until next year, pending a new report from Australia on its efforts to correct the reef’s decline due in February. 

Outrage from conservationists

UNESCO’s decision to back down from the “in danger” designation was met with swift condemnation from scientists and conservation groups. 

“Under the UNESCO treaty, the Australian government promised the world it would do its utmost to protect the Reef – instead it has done its utmost to hide the truth,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter said. “This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history. This is not an achievement – it is a day of shame for the Australian government.”

Still, others took to Twitter to vent their frustrations: 

Nonetheless, the eight months earned by Australia is decidedly less than the extension to 2023 it originally asked for. For that, we can thank Norway, which moved to include the “in danger” decision back on the committee’s agenda at its annual meeting next June.

Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, said the country’s close-shave with an “in-danger” designation for the reef means it’s effectively on probation. No amount of business-as-usual on climate change will save it from the inevitable. 

“We have a unique moment in time to harness our endless sunshine, huge land areas, powerful winds, and world-class expertise to lead the world in protecting the Reef from global warming,” he wrote in a statement. 

Such a plan, he added, would transform Australia into a “renewable exports superpower” and create a powerful argument as a responsible guardian of the Great Barrier Reef. 

“That will enable Australia to proudly say that we are doing everything we can to protect the Reef, and be a vital step forward to avoiding a World Heritage ‘in-danger’ listing in 2022,” he added. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Outlook Report 2019." Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 2019.