Branding the Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger': The good, the bad and the ugly

😃 The Good: Could help save the world's reefs

😔 The Bad: We all might give up on fixing it

😡 The Ugly: The 'ugly' industry destroying the reef

What is driving Australia’s efforts to stop the United Nations listing the Great Barrier Reef as in danger?

When populations of koalas, greater gliders and 1800 other species plummeted, the federal government recognised them as endangered.

But successive governments have fought hard against proposals to list the reef as in danger, despite their own data indicating its health is in a “very poor” state.

Left - bleached coral. Right - tourists jumping into Queensland waters.
The federal government doesn't want the Great Barrier Reef listed as endangered. Source: AAP/Getty

Many tourism operators fear listing the reef could send a destructive message. One told Yahoo News Australia they feared travellers could conclude the coral “is in such bad shape the reef isn’t worth visiting”. More than 60,000 jobs and $6 billion in revenue could be put at risk.

But would an in danger listing only impact tourism or is there more at play? One prominent reef expert believes there has always been “an elephant in the room”.

Listing the reef as in danger could save it

What’s good about an “in danger” listing is that it would likely result in increased media attention about the dying reef, and shame governments around the world into accelerating efforts to reduce emissions.

Reducing global warming will have an impact beyond the Great Barrier Reef, because almost 100 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will suffer bleaching if temperatures increase by 2 degrees. Every percentage increase above 1.5 will have a significant impact.

This charts shows how coral reefs will be affected by rising temperatures. Source: PLOS Climate
This charts shows how coral reefs will be affected by rising temperatures. Source: PLOS Climate

Australia’s new government is already tackling the issue of global warming, and it is only slightly falling behind in its commitment to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. Energy minister Chris Bowen said this week that Labor’s electric vehicle strategy and $15 billion national reconstruction fund, which are currently before parliament, will help the nation hit its target.

The world might give up on the reef

Placing the reef on the in-danger list could be a “disincentive for further action” to save it, according to one prominent conservation group. “It may actually result in the Australian and Queensland Government's thinking: Well, what can we do now?” WWF-Australia's head of oceans Richard Leck told Yahoo News Australia.

This week, two UN-backed scientists issued a 100-page report that concluded the reef should be listed as in danger, but it also included 22 recommendations. They include creating programs to tackle water quality, manage fishing, reduce climate change and remove gill-nets.

Mr Leck argues UNESCO should put formal considerations of the in danger listing on hold to give the government until 2024 to accept and implement the report's recommendations. “It gives the government a fair amount of time to show that they are willing to step up… it's actually more of an incentive,” he said.

Is there an ‘elephant in the room’?

The Great Barrier Reef has long played an important role in Tourism Australia campaigns aimed at attracting international visitors to Australia. This week, following the release of the UN study, the government told tourism operators it has their back and will work to protect the reef.

However, there was another industry, considered slightly "uglier" in the current zeitgeist, that the federal government didn’t publicly support in relation to the reef's proposed listing – the fossil fuel sector. Burning coal and gas directly leads to warming ocean temperatures, contributing to mass coral bleaching events across the reef in 2022, 2020, 2017, 2016, 2002 and 1998.

Left - clown fish in coral. Right - a big coal mining operation from above.
Fossil fuel projects benefit from the reef not being listed as in danger. Source: AAP/Getty (File)

Professor Tiffany Morrison from James Cook University argues listing the reef as in danger could result in public pressure that would see the government lose its social license to approve new coal and gas projects.

“That's the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss," Prof Morrison told Yahoo News Australia. "They say they're pushing back on the in danger listing to protect the tourism industry, but it also protects the mining industry," she said. That's because having a UNESCO heritage site that's listed as in danger "immediately adjacent to a flourishing mining region would be a really bad look".

"I think that this current government are making strides in a really positive direction, but it's not fast enough and they're scared to go faster," she said.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was contacted for comment. During a media conference this week, she said there is a long-term global trend towards renewables.

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