'Blindsided': Shock over huge Great Barrier Reef call

The Great Barrier Reef could be listed as “in danger” following a draft decision by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee overnight.

Climate change was highlighted as a key threat to the reef as the committee found the quality of the site had fallen from “poor to very poor” and deterioration had been more “rapid and widespread” than previously thought.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the government would “strongly oppose” the recommendation, which would be re-examined at the July meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting, to be hosted in China.

An aerial view of Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef could be listed as 'in danger' by UNESCO. Source: Getty Images

Government 'bewildered' by reef assessment

Ms Ley characterised the draft decision as a “complete subversion of normal process”, adding she and Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke with the UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay on Monday night to convey their “bewilderment” at the decision which has left them “blindsided”.

“The reef is an icon internationally and we are here to fight for the reef and we are here to challenge the decision when it comes up for final consideration,” she said.

While Ms Ley acknowledged climate change was the “single biggest threat” to the reef, she said Australia was “punching above (its) weight” when it come to tackling emissions.

She criticised the draft decision, saying it was made on the basis of a “desk top review” and didn’t use the latest data, including research from the Australian Institute of Marine Science which shows strong work in the recovery of the reef.

A diver takes photos of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered successive bleaching events. Source: WWF-Australia

Call for government to reduce emissions to save reef

Conservation groups including Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia said the recommendation is a wake-up call for the federal government to take stronger action to reduce emissions.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific spokesperson Martin Zavan said the government must cut emissions by 75 per cent this decade to give the reef a “fighting chance”.

“The UNESCO warning could not be any clearer, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger because of the Morrison Government’s failure to act on climate change,” he said.

While news of the recommendation would be a “huge shock”, for many Australians, WWF-Australia’s Richard Leck highlighted that consecutive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 resulted in the death of 50 per cent of the reef’s shallow water coral.

“The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian Government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change," Mr Leck said.

“It is a powerful message that our government needs to urgently lift its ambition on the threats to its existence – climate change and water quality."

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