Australia lashes out at Unesco over efforts to reclassify Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’

Australia lashes out at Unesco over efforts to reclassify Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’
Resistance to downgrade comes amid heightened concern over country’s failure to set climate targets

Despite scientists warning for years that Australia’s once vibrant Great Barrier Reef is dying due to the impacts of warming waters, Canberra has lashed out at UN attempts to reclassify the coral structure as “in danger”, saying the organisation risks damaging its own credibility.

The UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) decides world heritage listings through the 21 countries on its World Heritage Committee, which in June voted to back a draft ruling stating the coral reef was at risk of losing its world heritage status amid serious concern over water quality and the impacts of the climate crisis.

However, the reclassification would be a major embarrassment to Australia, which is already under increasing pressure to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and put into place net zero targets as other countries have done.

This week the government’s reef envoy, Warren Entsch, invited 14 ambassadors from countries on the World Heritage Committee to a snorkeling trip at the reef, and said the government would be “providing them with the facts” on challenges facing the reef.

“We showed the ambassadors areas that were impacted by coral bleaching and they were amazed at the regrowth and the diversity of the coral,” he said, according to the FT.

“Unesco plays an important role and if it wants to maintain credibility it needs to follow its own protocols.”

During the trip he also reportedly claimed that damage to the coral by bleaching events linked with higher temperatures were due to warm water coming from the northern hemisphere and flowing across the Pacific to the reef, and also that Australian efforts to clean the water had led to more sunlight reaching the corals.

The claims were dismissed as “ill-informed”, and Australia’s pre-eminent coral reef experts have welcomed the draft reclassification of the Great Barrier Reef, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Unesco has said listing the reef as “in danger” could help spur the international response required to take action.

But Australia is now seeking to have the reclassification delayed, and claims it has the support of more than half of the countries represented on the World Heritage Committee, meaning a decision on the reclassification could be delayed until 2023.

Australia was warned in 2014 that an in-danger listing was being considered for the reef, which was designated a world heritage site in 1981.

The draft decision said Australia’s long-term plan for the structure, a network of 2,500 reefs covering 134,000 square miles, “requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change”.

Mechtild Roessler, the director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, said: “We acknowledge very much the work which has been done in Australia, but our text in the draft decision … is a proposal for putting the site on the list of world heritage in danger because of the threats which were identified.”

Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, the assistant director-general for culture at Unesco, said that an in-danger listing should be viewed as a collective call for action from all the member states.

“It’s something that should be seen as something positive and not, as what we heard from some of the authorities in other countries, as a punishment,” he said

A recent report by the Australian Academy of Sciences found that if the world warmed by just 2C, only 1 per cent of corals would survive.

Since 1995, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral, partly as a result of the repeated marine heatwaves causing mass coral bleaching, a separate scientific study found in October 2020.

Additional reporting by agencies