Great Barrier reef not granted endangered status after Australia lobbied against it

The Great Barrier Reef. (Image: Lock the Gate Alliance | Flickr Commons.)

Australia succeeded in efforts to prevent the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as endangered by a United Nations organization after a diplomacy blitz.

Members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization committee on Friday voted against proposals to add the landmark to a list of at-risk World Heritage Sites, a move that would have triggered demands for additional conservation work.

“Without a site visit, no desired state of conservation, no corrective measure, and the absence of an agreed climate policy, an immediate endangered-listing will only harm the reef, not protect it,” Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the committee on Friday.

Australia’s pro-fossil fuel government has rejected demands for tougher action on reef preservation, insisting it is already making improvements through a A$3 billion ($2.2 billion) investment program. The government successfully challenged a previous effort in 2015 to designate the reef as endangered.

The reef, which stretches across an area about the size of Japan, is the Earth’s largest living structure and home to more than 600 types of corals and 1,600 species of fish.

Unesco has pressed for additional action after issuing repeated warnings over the worsening condition of the reef. The site has suffered significantly from mass coral bleaching caused by higher sea temperatures, according to a UN report published last month. The body downgraded the long-term outlook for the site from “poor” to “very poor.”

Ley traveled overseas this month for a round of meetings with committee members, arguing that they should vote against the endangered label. Meanwhile ambassadors from more than a dozen nations, including Japan and Russia, were invited to swim at the reef to show that the environmental risks were overstated.

“This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history,” said David Ritter, chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. “Climate change is the number one threat to the Great Barrier Reef,” he said, “and the Australian government has no credible plan for cutting emissions, no climate target and continues to promote and subsidize the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas.”

Countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Spain voted against the decision to add the Great Barrier Reef to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. They argued more time is needed to monitor the site, and that the impacts of climate change are being felt across coral reefs all over the planet, not just Australia’s. 

Australia “is strongly committed to the protection of the site and it’s been taking important action toward the long-term sustainability of the site,” said Brazil’s Unesco ambassador Santiago Irazabal. “Will this be enough to save the Great Barrier Reef? We don’t know, But we can give the Australian government a vote of confidence.” 

Environmental organizations such as WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature expressed their concern about the reef’s state of conservation. While the site faces global threats like climate change, progress towards achieving some of the targets Australia outlined in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan has also been slow and hasn’t stopped deterioration, according to the latest assessment by IUCN. 

“The climate crisis threatening the reef cannot be addressed by Australia alone, but the dangerous thing is a collective inaction by all other states,” Eva Hauge, senior advisor to the Norwegian Environment Agency,  told the Unesco committee on Friday. The endangered listing “is not a punishment, it’s how we mobilize action and preserve heritage for future generations.”

(By David Stringer and Laura Millan Lombrana)


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