Great Barrier Reef should be listed as ‘heritage site in danger’ says United Nations

A United Nations mission says the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as a World Heritage site in danger with Australia failing to adequately address climate change and other key threats.

Nov 29, 2022, updated Nov 29, 2022
Certain species are taking up residence in coral affected by bleaching. (Photo: Australia Tourism)

Certain species are taking up residence in coral affected by bleaching. (Photo: Australia Tourism)

The UN’s reactive monitoring mission has finally released its report after touring the reef in March, when the Morrison government was still in power.

It says an in-danger listing for the reef is warranted, although the final word on that will rest with the World Heritage Committee when it meets next year.

The report takes Australia to task over climate change, poor water quality, and fishing.

It says the management frameworks, strategies and plans that are in place to protect the reef lack “clear climate change targets and implementation measures which are of upmost urgency”.

Specifically, it notes the federal government has not passed laws enshrining a target of net zero emissions by 2050 – a goal that “remains aspirational” – and said both federal and state government must adopt stronger emissions reduction policies consistent with stopping warming at 1.5C.

“Whilst efforts towards climate change adaptation have accelerated considerably in recent years, particularly with regards to research into coral restoration, it remains of upmost urgency to establish more concrete actions that are sufficient to conserve the outstanding universal value of the property,” the report read.

It also says management frameworks, strategies and plans have not been fully implemented, particularly in relation to water quality and fishing.

Frequent mass bleachings and increased water acidity were proving a growing threat to corals, but not enough progress had been made to achieve targets in the reef’s water quality improvement plan, largely due to the sheer scale of the challenge.

And while significant work has been done to reduce the run off of farm pollutants and sediment, efforts will have to ramp up dramatically over the next three years to achieve those water quality targets.

In a joint statement, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and the government’s special envoy for the reef, Nita Green, said people who live and work on the reef may find the report alarming.

But they also said the report was not a UNESCO proposal for listing the reef as in danger.

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“This is a technical report and the World Heritage Centre is yet to make a recommendation, which would (then) be considered by the World Heritage Committee,” they said in a joint statement.

“We agree that climate change is a serious threat to World Heritage sites, right across the globe, including coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef.

“We are taking strong action on climate change by legislating an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent by 2030, with a clear path to net zero by 2050.”

At the time of the mission’s visit to Australia in March, another mass coral bleaching event was playing out on the reef after its hottest December on record, further heat stress in January and then a late summer heatwave.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science later said the bleaching wasn’t as deadly for coral as other previous events and that coral cover had bounced back bounced back across two thirds of the reef.

But the institute also warned its long-term health remains at risk from climate change.

The reef has recorded six mass coral bleaching events in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022. Scientists say they are the result of rising ocean temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Some coral experts fear there could be another this coming summer after data from the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed record November sea surface temperatures in the north of the reef.

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