UN grants Australia more time to avoid ‘in danger’ listing of Great Barrier Reef

By AAP 14 September 2023
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The World Heritage Committee has given Australia more time to address major threats to the Great Barrier Reef and possibly avoid an in-danger listing.

But it’s a temporary reprieve and Australia must report back early next year on what it’s doing to limit the harm being caused by climate change, poor water quality and other menaces.

Australia has lobbied hard against an in-danger listing for the World Heritage-listed site and the federal government expressed great relief last month when UNESCO – in a draft decision – recommended delaying a decision.

The World Heritage Committee rubber stamped that recommendation at a meeting in Saudi Arabia late on Wednesday, Australian time.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said it recognises the government’s commitment to better protecting the global treasure.

“Today’s decision is welcome news, but it wasn’t inevitable. Before Labor was elected, the reef was on the verge of being listed as in danger, because of (previous prime minister) Scott Morrison’s weak policies on climate and the environment,” she said.

“That has changed under Labor.”

Related: Experts demand new Great Barrier Reef plan

But reef advocates said Australia’s guardianship remains under intense scrutiny and both the federal and Queensland governments will have to demonstrate strong ambition when they provide an update in February.

Dr Lissa Schindler, from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said UNESCO made 22 recommendations in its Reactive Mission Report last year.

They included improving climate policies and emissions targets, boosting water quality, halting tree clearing in reef catchments and restoring coastal wetlands.

“The World Heritage Committee’s decision … reflects the Australian and Queensland governments’ initial progress on those recommendations but they must now make good on this vote of faith and deliver on all of them,” she said.

“They will have to report to UNESCO in February 2024 and they must be able to demonstrate further, genuine progress in safeguarding the reef’s future, or they risk an in-danger listing.”

Richard Leck is the head of oceans at WWF-Australia and said the mission’s recommendations were pretty specific around climate change.

“It was about Australia and the Queensland government having emissions reduction policies consistent with 1.5C of warming. Neither government has that level of ambition so far,” he said.

Australia has also been tasked with hitting key water quality targets by 2025.

“But we’re really not on track to do that. The government is really going to have to have pretty good evidence that they are spending that cash, or programming that cash, so there will be a significant improvement in pollution,” Mr Leck said.

Related: World Heritage sites of Australia

Queensland Environment Minister Leanne Linard said her government had been working hard to address climate change, water quality and fishing concerns, and has introduced robust and responsible tree clearing laws.

“We know these laws are working because the latest data shows a 70 per cent reduction in regulated vegetation clearing over three years. A further 59,654 hectares of vegetation regrowth has also been detected.”

But the latest statewide land-cover study, released in July, found that while vegetation clearing has been reduced by two-thirds in recent years more nature is still being destroyed than regrown, especially near the Great Barrier Reef.

The World Heritage in Danger list is about raising the alarm, globally, when specific sites are in trouble and at risk of losing the characteristics that earned them recognition in the first place.

In-danger listings are meant to encourage action to address threats.

A listing for the reef is still possible down the track if the World Heritage Committee isn’t satisfied with Australia’s efforts.

Related: Is the Great Barrier Reef reviving – or dying? Here’s what’s happening beyond the headlines