June 22

By Dennis Normile

Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef should be inscribed on a list of World Heritage Sites that are “in danger,” according to a draft decision UNESCO released on 21 June. The Australian government opposes the recommendation, which was made partly to spur the country into action on climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef suffered major bleaching events in 2016, 2017, and 2020. The UNESCO report cites Australia’s own studies in noting that the reef’s ecosystem has deteriorated “from poor to very poor” since 2015, and that deterioration “has been more rapid and widespread” than between 2009 and 2014, partly because of repeated coral bleaching driven by global warming.

All of the 29 reefs found in World Heritage List areas have bleached multiple times, says marine ecologist Terry Hughes of James Cook University, Townsville, but UNESCO seems to be singling out the Great Barrier Reef because Australia is a laggard in addressing climate change. It has not joined the numerous other countries that have set a target of bringing net carbon emissions to zero, for example.

Although UNESCO used to consider climate change as a global issue that no one country is responsible for, there has been a “gradual shift,” Hughes says, “to this new approach … to link the climate change policies of an individual country to its responsibilities for its World Heritage areas.” Hughes sees the draft decision as a “warning to Australia that if it is serious about managing the Great Barrier Reef for future generations, then it has to join the rest of the world in fighting climate change.” The recommendation says “accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.”

“Australia will strongly oppose” the recommendation, Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said in a statement. “I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best managed reef in the world for an ‘in danger’ listing,” Ley said. If UNESCO wants to tie heritage management evaluations to climate change, she said, “there are any number of international World Heritage Sites that should be subject to the same process.”

But many ecologists welcome UNESCO’s move. “This draft decision sends a powerful message that our Government needs to step up and be part of a global effort to reduce emissions,” says Lesley Hughes, an ecologist at Macquarie University who is a councilor with Australia’s Climate Council, a nongovernmental organization that provides independent advice on climate issues.

The UNESCO committee had threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger in 2015 but backed down when the Australian government produced a plan to protect the reef and monitor progress annually. The government heavily lobbied members of the World Heritage Committee and issued a report in 2016 saying there was “substantial progress” in reef conditions.

The final decision on whether to add the reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger will be made by the 21 nations of the World Heritage Committee at its meeting next month in Fuzhou, China. The committee is currently chaired by China; Australia is a member. Hughes says the committee usually tries to reach unanimous decisions, but this recommendation may go to a vote that might be too close to call.