UNESCO recommends the Great Barrier Reef be declared World Heritage in Danger

Posted on 22 June 2021

WWF says Australia must commit to a climate policy consistent with 1.5 degrees
UNESCO has sent the strongest message possible that Australia must do more on climate change and water quality to protect the Great Barrier Reef by recommending the natural icon be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The UN body yesterday issued a draft decision on the World Heritage status of Australia’s iconic reef. That decision will be considered by the World Heritage Committee when it meets in July.

“After three mass bleaching events in five years, UNESCO is saying it’s critical for Australia and other nations to do everything possible to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C,” said Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for WWF-Australia.

“The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect its greatest natural asset, especially on climate change.

“The prospect of losing the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef is a shock that will reverberate around the globe. It is a powerful message to governments around the world of what we stand to lose if we do not urgently lift the ambition to tackle climate change and ocean health,” he said.

Released in Paris, key points of the draft decision include that the World Heritage Committee:
  • Notes with the utmost concern and regret the conclusions of the 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor, that the deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property has been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident, and that the property has suffered significantly from mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020;
  • Also notes with the utmost concern that despite many positive achievements, progress has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan, in particular the water quality and land management targets, as evidenced by the conclusions of the 2017-2018 and 2019 Reef Quality Report Cards;
  • Noting the conclusion of the 2019 GBR Outlook Report that climate change remains the most serious threat to the property, and recognizing that action by the international community and all States Parties to the Convention is urgently required to address threats from climate change, considers that actions to build resilience of the property and address other factors remain of utmost importance;
  • Decides to inscribe the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef has been under threat since the World Heritage Committee first expressed “extreme concern” about the reef in 2011.

The federal and Queensland governments responded in 2015 with the Reef 2050 Plan, which included a ban on the dumping of dredge spoil and other reforms, but was largely silent on the greatest threat to the reef: climate change.

The World Heritage Committee acknowledged these measures in 2015 but said it wanted to see improvements in the reef’s health and would consider the matter again in 2020.

That meeting was postponed to July 2021 because of COVID-19.

“The landmark 2015 conservation wins focused on improving water quality and other localized actions. Since then, leading scientists estimated the back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 killed up to 50% of shallow water coral,” Leck said.

“Clearly the significant coral mortality has prompted UNESCO to urge the Australian government to do more on climate. The federal government should seize the opportunity to transform the nation into a renewable energy superpower. Australia could become the world’s leading exporter of renewables by 2030. It would boost jobs, reinvigorate communities, pump up the economy, and give the reef a fighting chance,” he said.
Great Barrier Reef: WWF confirms mass bleaching
© WWF-Australia / BioPixel