The United Nations Is Warning That the Great Barrier Reef Is Endangered. Why?
The Australian government expressed surprise on Tuesday at a draft resolution to classify the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” However, the recommendation has been on the horizon for some time.
The recommendation, issued jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recognizes Australia’s commitment to implementing the Reef 2050 Plan, an overarching framework for safeguarding the natural wonder for future generations.
However, the Great Barrier Reef’s “outstanding universal value” has continued to diminish.
The draft judgment will now be discussed at the World Heritage Committee’s meeting next month, which will be held online. This development is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Australia’s progress toward compliance with the Paris Agreement is being tied to its reef stewardship.
What statement did UNESCO make?
UNESCO and IUCN referenced a 2019 report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in recommending the in-danger designation, which stated the ecosystem’s long-term outlook had deteriorated from bad to very poor. Global warming, it added, was also responsible for coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 – followed by another huge bleaching event in 2020.
Australia’s work on the Reef 2050 Plan, the report stated, “has been insufficient in meeting key targets” It stated that the strategy required bolder and more specific commitments, particularly on tackling climate change challenges promptly and improving water quality and land management.
Among other things, the draft judgment urged the world community to “implement the most ambitious actions to address climate change … and fulfil their responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef”
There is no real surprise here.
Sussan Ley, the Federal Environment Minister, stated that the administration was taken aback by the draft recommendation. However, the relocation has been in the works for a lengthy period of time.
As mentioned previously, the government’s 2019 Outlook Report outlined the Great Barrier Reef’s impacts and threats in no uncertain terms and singled out climate change as the most serious threat.
There were more indications that the recommendation was imminent. The IUCN World Heritage Outlook for 2020 classified the Great Barrier Reef as “critical” citing risks such as climate change and poor water quality. The rating – the lowest on a four-point scale – represents a decrease from the previous year’s “significant concern” rating.
And in 2018, a survey forecasted that without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 World Heritage coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, would cease to function as “functioning ecosystems by the end of the century”
Finally, in 2012, the World Heritage Committee cautioned that “in the absence of substantial progress” the Great Barrier Reef might be placed on the endangered species list.
Climate change is not the only issue at stake.
While climate change is mentioned prominently in the draft judgement, it is only one of multiple stresses on the Great Barrier Reef. Poor water quality as a result of nutrient and sediment runoff — the latter of which is associated with land removal – are also significant issues.
Climate change, according to the IUCN’s outlook report, is the greatest threat to the world’s natural heritage sites. This week’s proposed decision establishes a critical precedent for the World Heritage Committee in this regard. It appears as though the committee is now willing to directly address climate change, having been less inclined in past years.
Climate change is not sufficiently addressed in the Reef 2050 Plan. The UNESCO report urges Australia to rectify this oversight and to ensure that the plan adequately addresses other issues, such as water quality.
The World Heritage Committee’s decisions are not legally binding on any country. Nonetheless, we anticipate that the committee’s concerns will result in Australia modifying the Reef 2050 Plan to more explicitly recognize climate change as a serious issue.
The draft decision will be discussed during the World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting in July, which will be led by China and will include representatives from 21 countries.
Is tourism coming to an end?
The experience of other major tourist locations demonstrates that an endangered listing would not have the detrimental effect on tourism at the Great Barrier Reef that some have predicted.
Consider the Florida Everglades, Belize in the Caribbean, and the Galapagos Islands. An examination of seven World Heritage properties revealed no obvious decline in tourism following their in-danger designation. However, if the status of the Great Barrier Reef continues to worsen, industries that rely on the Reef’s health are likely to suffer long-term damage.
A status as endangered is not permanent, nor does it imply that the Great Barrier Reef will be permanently removed from the World Heritage list. Currently, 53 World Heritage properties are listed as being in risk; others have been removed from the list after concerns have been addressed.
The Great Barrier Reef will continue to be destroyed until governments adopt more aggressive climate targets, global greenhouse gas emissions decline to net zero, and sea levels stabilize.
Without significant and immediate action at all levels – global, national, and local – the values that contribute to the uniqueness of all cultural sites will erode. This decreases the likelihood that future generations will be able to appreciate these delights in the same way that we have.
Jon C. Day, PSM, is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the James Cook University ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies; Scott F. Heron is an Associate Professor at James Cook University; and Terry Hughes is a Distinguished Professor at James Cook University.
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