Australia's Great Barrier Reef fail: 'Increasingly serious'

Australia has failed in its efforts to convince a United Nations delegation that the Great Barrier Reef is not "in danger". That's despite sustained efforts to avoid the label by the Morrison and Albanese governments since the idea of listing it was first proposed last year.

In May, Anthony Albanese said listing the reef would not be in "Australia’s national interest". But an international UNESCO delegation that visited the Queensland tourism hotspot over 10 days in March concluded it is time to do so.

After touring sites between Brisbane and Cairns and meeting with stakeholders, they found climate change is an “increasingly serious challenge” and the reef is suffering “widespread coral bleaching events” with “increasing frequency”. It also highlighted coastal development, degrading water quality from agriculture, and the proposed construction of large-scale Hells Gate and Urannah dams in the region as key threats

Two images of divers snorkelling in a bleached part of the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia has failed to convince the United Nations delegation that the Great Barrier Reef is not in danger. Source: AAP

Now could be the best time to see the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef injects $6.4 billion into Australia’s economy annually and supports around 64,000 jobs.

Veteran dive operator Tony Fontes has welcomed the recommendation, saying it’s been “in danger for 15 years”. “Fighting the in danger listing has not been the right course", according to Mr Fontes, who argues doing so has been more about Australian governments "saving face". "There’s no other reason why they would, because an in danger listing would bring help to the reef," he said.

An in danger listing would draw international attention to the plight of the reef. It would also likely add pressure on governments to reject new fossil fuel projects, James Cook University's Prof Tiffany Morrison told the Guardian in 2021.

In February, a report concluded even if global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, just 0.2 per cent of the world's coral landscapes will likely remain unaffected. At 2 degrees, around 100 per cent of reefs may be impacted by bleaching.

A green sea turtle on the Great Barrier Reef.
Diving operators are having to travel further to find untouched coral reefs. Source: Getty (File)

Without an international commitment to reign in carbon emissions, Mr Fontes warns global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. “It looks like we may not make that target,” he said.

The reef has experienced widespread bleaching events with increasing frequency. While some areas remain healthy, dive operators are having to travel further in order to show tourists healthy ecosystems.

“I would have to say the reef as we know it today will not be the reef we see tomorrow. And we're gonna see some serious degradation," Mr Fontes said.

UNESCO to consider Great Barrier Reef 'in danger' listing

The recommendation takes the Great Barrier Reef one step closer to being added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. Submissions will also be made by the federal and Queensland governments and a decision will be made at the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting.

The report noted there have been “unparalleled science and management efforts” and an “advancement of Australia’s climate change mitigation commitments”, but ultimately concluded it should be listed due to the “major threats” it faces.

Ten priority recommendations should be “implemented with the upmost urgency”, the report’s authors said. These involve increased monitoring, protection of remnant vegetation, emissions reduction and the phase-out of gill net fishing.

An extra 12 additional recommendations would “further strengthen the resilience” of the reef amid the ongoing threat of climate change.

Following on from the Morrison government, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has made it clear she will continue to lobby the United Nations against the reef being listed at the next meeting.

"We'll clearly make the point to UNESCO that there is no need to single the Great Barrier Reef out in this way," Ms Plibersek said during a media briefing on Tuesday. "The reason that UNESCO in the past has singled out a place as at risk is because they wanted to see greater government investment or greater government action and since the change of government, both of those things have happened."

Earlier, Ms Plibersek and Great Barrier Reef special envoy Senator Nita Green released a joint statement on Tuesday, saying the “global threat” of climate change “must be met with global action”. They highlighted the extra $204 million in reef spending announced in this year’s budget.

WWF-Australia urged the federal government to adopt UNESCO's recommendations as they are the "global experts on protecting World Heritage areas".

"These UNESCO recommendations are a reminder it is our choice to give the world’s most iconic coral reef the best chance of survival,” WWF-Australia's Richard Leck said.

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