SYDNEY — The Great Barrier Reef should be added to a list of world heritage sites that are “in danger,” according to United Nations officials, a move Australian officials plan to challenge as politically motivated.
The UNESCO report urges Australia to take “accelerated action at all possible levels” to address the threat from climate change. Australia is one of the only wealthy nations that has not pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and it is facing pressure to do so.
The country’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, said in a statement on Tuesday that Australia would “strongly oppose” the draft recommendation, which she said was a “back flip on previous assurances from UN officials.”
“We have been singled out,” she said in an interview on Australia’s state broadcaster. “There’s about 82 properties that are at risk of climate change … and they’ve singled out Australia for this unprecedented approach.”
Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive David Ritter said the country’s politicians “are finding that they cannot hide from the truth forever.”
“For too long, a succession of Australian prime ministers have hidden behind the big lie that you can protect the Great Barrier Reef without rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas,” he said. The reef was “paying the price” for Australia’s failure to reduce emissions, he added.
The Great Barrier Reef has been hit hard by rising temperatures in recent years. Underwater heat waves triggered coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 so severe that scientists say the reef will never look the same again.
Coral bleaching occurs when corals are stressed by a change in environmental conditions. They react by expelling the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues and then turn completely white.
UNESCO based its “in danger” assessment largely on those mass bleaching events, said Helen McGregor, an associate professor from the School of Earth Atmospheric and Life Sciences at the University of Wollongong.
“Climate change makes the conditions that lead to bleaching more likely,” McGregor said. “Without substantive action globally and in Australia to cut CO2 emissions, we should not be surprised by such assessments.”
Peter Harrison, director of the Marine Ecology Research Center at Southern Cross University, said UNESCO’s proposed listing is a “fair assessment,” given the extreme threats to the reef.
“It faces a perfect storm of potentially severe impacts that continue to erode its resilience,” he said. “The science behind the modeling shows the threat to the Great Barrier Reef is real and has been intensifying since the 1980s as global temperatures increased.”
Other threats include water-quality issues leading to chronic outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and increased intensity and severity of cyclones also associated with climate change, said Harrison, who has worked on the reef for more than 40 years and witnessed its declining health.
The reef is important to Australia. Government officials successfully lobbied for details of damage to the reef to be scrubbed from a 2016 UNESCO report on threatened heritage sites so that it would not affect tourism. Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2 million tourists traveled to Queensland state each year from all over the world to experience the reef’s color and biodiversity.
Ley, the environment minister, said the country had spent more than $2 billion on reef protection, adding that the UNESCO decision “sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making.”