What Happens to the Great Barrier Reef Now, Given UNESCO Won’t List It as Endangered?

Great barrier reef

For the second time in history, the Australian government has managed to convince UNESCO not to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered after a relentless lobbying campaign.

The news is a depressing blow for climate scientists, activists, and researchers who say that the listing — or lack thereof — will not change the science, and that the reef is still under critical stress.

We know that almost half of the coral in one of Australia’s most iconic natural wonders has died since 1985. We also know that the reef brings in some $5.7 billion worth of tourism every year and has a broad reaching economic impact across its home state of Queensland and beyond.

The final truth, and the one that unfortunately matters the most, is that the reef being under severe threat due to warming seas caused by climate change does not fit the economic or political narrative of the LNP.

To lose the reef on its watch would be a damning indictment of coalition environmental policy and a clear link between lack of action and real-time consequence. This latest move is another example of politics getting in the way of science and much needed action.

However, the decision means they won’t be getting away with it for long.

What happened?

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which includes representatives from 21 nations, made the decision on the evening of Friday, July 23 to not add the Great Barrier Reef to its list of endangered cultural heritage spots.

Australia — one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and gas — gained support to dismiss the decision from other fossil fuel giants like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which are both members of the committee

“The Federal Government spared no expense in petitioning to keep the Reef off UNESCO’s ‘In Danger’ list,” said Climate Council spokesperson and Distinguished Professor of Biology at Macquarie University, Lesley Hughes.

“As millions of Australians suffered through lockdown, the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, jet-setted off to Europe to personally lobby foreign ambassadors who were responsible for the decision,’ said Hughes.

“Political lobbying doesn’t help the Reef. The only thing that will help protect this precious ecosystem is Australia cutting its greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and rapidly this decade, and encouraging the rest of the world to do the same,” she said.

During the Friday meeting, UNESCO stated that the criteria to place the reef on the ‘in danger’ list had clearly been met.

Dr Fanny Douvere, head of the marine program at UNESCO, said the committee had acknowledged the reef was in danger from climate change.

“The facts are the facts and the science is the science. The committee supported the science but did not support the ‘in danger’ listing,” she said.

Australia had attempted to delay any decision on the danger listing until at least 2023 but after an interjection from Norway, the committee decided instead that the reef’s health would be considered again at next year’s meeting.

What happens now?

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it), listing the reef was never going to do that much to help save it. It would, however, have been yet another wake up call to Aussies that the government’s blunt refusal to do anything about climate change is destroying the things we hold dear.

It would also have been a sign that the world is taking note of the failings of Australia to protect its natural wonders.

The decision however won’t stop the reef from being listed, it has only pushed that decision down the line.

UNESCO will now carry out a health-reporting mission to the reef in the coming months and Australia will have to send updates of the progress of this mission to the agency by February 2022 — earlier than a December 2022 deadline Australia had asked for.

“This decision has only postponed the inevitable,” write researchers from James Cook University.

“It does not change the irrefutable evidence that dangerous impacts are already occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. Some, such as coral bleaching and death from marine heatwaves, will continue to accelerate.

“The reef currently meets the criteria for in-danger listing. That’s unlikely to improve within the next 12 months,” they have said.

The outcome this time around is better than a previous attempt to list the reef in 2015. Six years ago, when the same decision was put to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, no follow up action was required by Australia.

Professor Will Steffen, Climate Council spokesperson and climate change expert was part of the review team for the 2015 UNESCO report and has said that last time, “All mention of the Reef were cut completely, after the Australian government successfully pressured UNESCO to remove any reference to it.”

“No sections about any other country were removed. This censorship of science is wrong, but sadly a common tactic used by this government. It’s wasting time and effort that we can’t afford to waste,” Steffen said.

The new ruling will at least mean that Australia has to continue working on the health of the reef if it wants to stop it being listed as endangered.

UN Ambassador Peter Thomson and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland have written that this process, and the reef as a whole, could actually be a huge help in the fight against climate change.

Acting as both a yardstick for the overall health of the planet and a carbon sink, the reef could be our “biggest ally” in solving the climate crisis.

“To assist our ally, we should be investing in the sustainable blue economy, converting shipping to non-fossil fuel energy sources and financing renewable offshore energy infrastructure,” they write.

“As well as reducing emissions to net zero as rapidly as possible, we must build the resilience of coral reefs so they can thrive in what will be a warmer climate”.

If we stop over-fishing and polluting the ocean and start to restore places like mangroves, wetlands, and seagrass fields, we can use the reef and our oceans to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s the only form of carbon capture that works and, rather than investing in expensive and unproven technology like our government is doing, we would also restore our natural evironment.

“The challenge confronting us all is immense,” they write, “but there is hope if we combine our ideas, efforts and resources.”

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