5 Things You Need to Know About the Government’s Great Barrier Reef Battle With UNESCO

UNESCO reef listing

It’s taken billions of tiny coral polyps millions of years to form the Great Barrier Reef and just 36 years for people to destroy half of it.

The Great Barrier Reef, listed as one of the seven wonders of the natural world in 1997 and a world heritage site since 1985, is roughly the same size as Japan. It’s home to thousands of different species of fish, sharks, marine mammals, sea birds, and a third of the world’s soft corals. It’s also one of Australia’s biggest tourism draws, bringing in some $5.7 billion dollars to the Australian economy each year.

The reef is also in trouble, big trouble. As stated, over half of the reef has been destroyed since 1985, largely due to oil spills, mining operations, agricultural runoff, and, most importantly, coral bleaching due to climate change.

That last sentence is one that the Australian government doesn’t want you to read. UNESCO, the United Nations body in charge of protecting and managing world heritage sites, has been trying to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered for some time and the government is not having a bar of it.

To list the reef as endangered would be a huge international embarrassment and a direct challenge to coalition climate policies that have contributed to the decline of one of Australia’s most beloved icons.

Protecting one of the seven natural wonders of the world is a big responsibility that the coalition does not seem up to the task of doing. That’s why it’s fighting tooth and nail to reverse the UNESCO listing so they can keep on pretending that climate change isn’t happening.

The decision will be made on Friday and here’s what you need to know about it.

Listing might not save the reef, but it’s worth trying

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is made up of 21 countries that are there to consider all aspects of cultural and natural heritage around the world and make recommendations to the UN on what to do to protect and preserve the natural environment.

This committee voted on a draft ruling back in June to list the reef as in danger and have been meeting for the past two weeks to discuss this ruling and other threats to natural heritage sites around the world that it is worried could disappear.

In practical terms, listing doesn’t mean a whole lot. According to UNESCO, it could become a rallying cry to Australia and the world to do more to save the reef.

We already know it’s in danger, but putting it in official terms could be the impetus for greater protections put in place around it.

The listing would push Australia on climate change

UNESCO lists things on its endangered list of world heritage sites for a number of different reasons, however, this is the first time that climate change is thought to be a cause for the decline of a world heritage site.

Coral bleaching, caused by rising sea temperatures, has already claimed around a quarter of the reef and scientists think that if the temperature of the planet were to rise by 1.5°C, almost the entire reef would disappear.

1.5°C of warming is the limit established at the Paris Climate Accord that countries need to avoid hitting and are supposed to have put in place plans to reduce emissions so that we don’t get there.

Much of the Western world has already set a timeline and strategy for getting its emissions below levels that would push us beyond 1.5°C, but Australia has been reluctant to do so.

UNESCO is not only recommending that the reef be endangered, but that we put in place climate change policies that would limit further damage to the reef.

Australia thinks China is to blame

When in doubt, blame China.

The 44th World Heritage Committee meeting is being held in Fuzhou, China, and the country is the head of the World Heritage Committee.

This is immediately suspect to Australia. We’re currently in a bit of a back-and-forth with China over a number of issues including trade and security, and have recently spent $748  million bolstering our northern defences ‘just in case’ — although Morrison denies this has anything to do with China.

Federal Environment Minister Susan Ley said the decision was flawed and motivated by politics. She did not mention China by name, but media outlets reported that the government blamed Beijing.

When asked about the Australian government response, China’s deputy education minister and chair of the committee Tian Xuejun said that the decision was based “on reports and data provided by Australia itself”.

“Australia should fulfil its obligations to protect World Heritage sites instead of making baseless accusations against other member states,” he added.

We’re absolutely furious

The Environment Minister was reportedly stunned by the recommendation and has hit back strongly at UNESCO for its consideration.

Ley has said that the government would “strongly oppose” the decision, describing it as a “backflip on previous assurances” by UN officials that the reef would not be considered for listing this year.

She has spent the past week on a lobbying tour, rallying support from other member countries to challenge the decision. The minister’s office has said she has been to Hungary, France, Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Oman and the Maldives and met ambassadors from 18 countries either face-to-face or virtually.

The Australian government has invited more than a dozen ambassadors on a snorkelling trip to the reef to assess its health. Nine of these diplomats are from countries that have voting rights at Friday’s committee meeting.

The result of all of this is that the government has tabled an amendment to reject UNESCO’s findings and push designation over the status of the reef back until 2023.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are both co-sponsoring the amendment, leading one politician in the UK to say: “Imagine teaming up with fossil fuel pariah states to delay saving Australia’s greatest natural wonder. Scott Morrison’s Australia is a disgrace”.

The government could win, but it won’t stop the problem

This is actually the second time the reef has faced the threat of an ‘endangered’ listing. In 2015, the government also managed to lobby the committee to delay the classification of the reef and it looks as though they have the numbers this time to do the same.

However, it appears that global and scientific pressure is mounting on the government to do something about the clearly deteriorating health of the reef.

Celebrities from around the world, including Joana Lumley, Jason Momoa, Prince Albert of Monaco, and Cody Simpson, have all signed a petition to encourage UNESCO to go ahead with the listing.

The government is worried about the impact such a listing could have in the lead up to a federal election, slated for sometime next year, and will continue to fight the designation of the reef as endangered.

Even if they manage to stave off this listing, the scientific community is resolute that the reef is in danger and needs protecting. While they can push this further down the line, the problem is not going to go away anytime soon.

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