The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is one of the natural world’s true wonders, yet it is increasingly in peril from climate change and other environmental stressors.
In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has just recommended that the largest reef system in the world be listed as a World Heritage Site “in danger,” citing repeated mass coral bleaching events in 2015, 2016 and 2017 that have placed the health of the reef’s ecosystem at increased risk.
“[T]he long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the [reef] has deteriorated from poor to very poor and climate change remains the most serious threat,” UNESCO explains in a report.
“Other key threats are land-based run-off, coastal development and some direct human uses.” the UN agency adds. “[A]ccelerated action to mitigate climate change and improve water quality was essential to turn this outlook around.”
In tandem, UNESCO has called on the Australian government to step up protection measures, stressing that “accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change.”
What is needed includes “stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures,” UNESCO stressed.
Australia’s government, however, “strongly opposes” the recommendation, which is “a complete subversion of normal process,” according to the country’s minister of environment, Susan Ley.
“This decision was flawed and clearly there was politics behind it, and that has subverted the proper process. For the World Heritage committee not to foreshadow this listing is appalling,” Ley told reporters.
By singling out the Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO has sent “a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making,” Ley argued.
However, leading conservation groups, including WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, have been asking the United Nations to put pressure on Australia to take stronger action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and stepping up marine protection measures.
“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,” Richard Leck, head of Oceans for WWF-Australia, said in a statement.
“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,” Leck argued.
“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.
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