WORLD / ASIA-PACIFIC
Great Barrier Reef avoids UNESCO endangered world heritage listing
Australia let off the hook once more
Published: Jul 25, 2021 07:03 PM
Aerial photo taken on June 2, 2021 shows the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef in Australia's state of Queensland, is described as the planet's most beautiful marine environment and is the main conservation target of the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a charity cooperative organization that runs a series of preserving programs. (Photo by Hu Jingchen/Xinhua)

Aerial photo taken on June 2, 2021 shows the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef in Australia's state of Queensland, is described as the "planet's most beautiful marine environment" and is the main conservation target of the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a charity cooperative organization that runs a series of preserving programs. (Photo by Hu Jingchen/Xinhua)



Australia on Friday avoided having the Great Barrier Reef listed as an endangered world heritage site by UNESCO, despite extensive climate change-fueled damage to the ecosystem's corals.

After a concerted lobbying effort by Canberra, members of the World Heritage Committee, including leading fossil fuel producers Russia and Saudi Arabia, voted to give Australian conservation efforts more time. 

The group brushed aside UNESCO experts' recommendation that the reef's World Heritage status be downgraded because of dramatic coral decline, instead telling Australia to report on the reef's status by 2022. The 2,300-kilometer-long ecosystem has suffered three mass coral bleaching events since 2016, which was caused by rising ocean temperatures due to global warming. 

Areas once teeming with vibrant corals have become lifeless washed-out wastelands, and two-thirds of the reef is believed to have been damaged in some way.  

Despite the damage, the reef remains a vital tourist draw for Australia, which had feared an "in danger" label could deter post-pandemic visitors.

Australia's environment minister Sussan Ley had flown to Paris earlier in July to personally lobby member states on the committee, while key ambassadors were invited on a reef snorkeling trip.

On Friday, Ley welcomed the decision, thanking "esteemed delegates for recognizing Australia's commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef."

Environmental groups decried the decision as a political stitch-up.

"This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history," said Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

"It is a day of infamy for the Australian government."

A decision on the reef's status had already been postponed from 2015, when Australia successfully waged a similar diplomatic campaign and committed billions of dollars to reef protection. 

"This is history repeating itself," said Climate Council spokesman Will Steffen.

"Australia must stop censoring science, and start taking the steps we know are required to help protect the reef," he added.

Though Australian government scientists say corals have shown signs of recovery in the past 12 months, they admit the reef's long-term outlook remains "very poor." 

The reef is also susceptible to damage from cyclones and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat the coral. 

Canberra faces criticism for refusing to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. 

The government has said it hopes to meet the target "as soon as possible" without harming the country's fossil fuel-reliant economy.

AFP
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