A report released by the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last night recommends delaying for another year a vote on whether to add Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the list of World Heritage sites that are “In Danger.”
The Albanese government has welcomed the move, with environment Minister Tanya Plibersek saying the decision “acknowledges that under Labor, Australia is once again serious about protecting the reef.”
Marine scientists acknowledge the government has implemented some useful strategies but they don’t want the focus to move away from the fact that the greatest threat to the reef is global warming, and they say government is not doing enough in that area.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral ecosystem. It covers 348,000 square kilometres and is home to 400 types of coral, 1,500 fish species, and 4,000 species of mollusc. The natural wonder was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1981.
The World Wide Fund for Nature Australia (WWF Australia) says the reef has lost half its coral cover in the last three decades due to climate change, pollution and invasive species.
UNESCO’s draft decision to avoid adding the ecological marvel to its “In Danger” list is made due what it describes as: “a period of recovery since 2019.”
The UN body notes that the Great Barrier Reef “remains under serious threat and urgent and sustained action” is required to protect it, but recommends that it “re-evaluate whether the property meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger” in September 2024.
Experts are warning that the move represents a backward step in the conservation of the reef.
Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, says the decision means UNESCO has “kicked the can down the road.”
“Australia is required to deliver yet another report by 1st February 2024 on progress towards meeting water pollution targets, reducing land-clearing, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement,” Hughes says.
“In the meantime, the Australian Government continues to permit and subsidise new fossil fuel projects. As El Niño conditions strengthen once more, it’s very likely we’ll see another mass bleaching event next summer, just after the report is written.”
In an interview with Cosmos, Dr Simon Bradshaw – research director at the Australian not-for-profit Climate Council – says: “Sadly, UNESCO’s decision doesn’t change the fact that the Great Barrier Reef, and indeed all coral reefs, are in grave danger because of climate change, driven by the burning of coal, oil and gas.”
Monash University atmospheric scientist Dr Kimberley Reid agrees that the main threat to the Great Barrier Reef is continued human-induced climate change which is warming global temperatures.
“At 2°C warming, scientists expect a 99% decline in global coral reefs by the end of the century,” Reid says. “Current global emission reduction policies put us on track for 2.7°C warming by the end of the century.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem here. The solution is equally simple: our leaders must do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero regardless of what official lists the Great Barrier Reef is on.”
Bradshaw says UNESCO’s report recognises efforts to protect the reef made by the Australian government, “especially around water quality and reducing tree clearing, protecting coastal wetlands, dealing with invasive species strengthening to a degree.”
But he also notes that it “puts the Australian government on notice,” saying that “climate change remains the number one threat.”
University of Technology, Sydney professor David Booth says: “It is almost too late to save the Reef, along with its huge tourism and fishing industries.”
The reef “faces a grim summer,” according to Booth. “Coral bleaching and the associated loss of habitat for fish and marine creatures is coming on a mass scale, with a strong El Niño forecast.”
“Will the Federal Government finally face up to reality and stop all coal and gas production and export – especially new gas developments such as the Adani field?” (Clarification, 3 August: Adani does not have any gas developments in Australia. They produce coal for export.)
A rise in global temperatures brought about by emissions of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, where they trap heat, has led to an increase in extreme weather and other climate-related events.
“The conversation is timely whilst our Northern Hemisphere neighbours have been suffering heatwaves and breaking hundreds of thousands of years of temperature records,” says Professor Jodie Rummer, a marine biologist from James Cook University. “Bushfires have plagued the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe. And even here, in Australia, we are experiencing heatwave conditions in the middle of our winter season.”
“We’ve already seen six mass coral bleaching events, four of which have occurred just in the past seven years, and we know the increased frequency and severity of marine heatwaves that are fuelled by ongoing climate change are the cause,” Rummer adds.
“The time is now,” Rummer says, to shift “to clean energy and limiting our emission contributions so we can properly protect our national icon and maintain our stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef responsibly.”
Bradshaw says the coming years are vital in determining whether the Great Barrier Reef survives or not.
“If we managed to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, which is the goal of the Paris agreements, that would certainly give the reef a fighting chance. It would not be the same as the reef we know today. But it would still potentially be a vibrant ecosystem. Every increment of warming beyond that, and the danger only increases.”
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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation's Flourishing Oceans initiative.