The Great Barrier Reef is at the centre of a huge battle - here's why

Australians are divided on whether the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” as recommended in a draft decision by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in June.

Of the 1121 World Heritage sites worldwide, just 53 are registered as endangered.

If the Reef is listed, it will be the first time a natural world heritage site has been downgraded to this status due to climate change.

Two images of the Reef. One on the left is colourful, the other shows bleached coral.
The Great Barrier Reef could be listed as "in danger" by UNESCO. Source: Getty

Why listing the Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger' matters

The listing could harm Australia's image and affect tourism to the reef, which Deloitte said in 2017 was worth $6.4 billion annually.

Conversely, listing the reef would likely unlock new funding streams to help protect it into the future.

How key environment groups responded

After the draft recommendation was made, environment groups including Greenpeace and WWF-Australia said it was clear the federal government needed to take tougher action on climate change.

What the federal government did next

Despite UNESCO expressing "extreme concern" about the reef in 2011, the federal government said it was "blindsided by the latest recommendation.

  • The Minister attempted to stop the listing by meeting with UNESCO delegates overseas.

  • She then invited 15 diplomats, nine with voting rights, to go snorkelling on the Reef.

What happens now?

The vote on whether to list the Reef as 'in danger' will be on the agenda when members of UNESCO's 21-member World Heritage Committee begins meeting in the Chinese city of Fuzhou on Friday.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef and a picture of Sussan Ley.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the government was "blindsided" by the UNESCO recommendation for the Great Barrier Reef. Source: Getty / AAP

Signs the Barrier Reef may be in danger

  • The Great Barrier Reef has suffered three major bleaching events in the last five years.

  • Back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 / 2017 resulted in two thirds of the reef being affected.

  • The Marine Park Authority downgraded the Reef's health from "poor" to "very poor" in 2019.

  • In 2020, the Bureau of Meteorology recorded the hottest surface temperatures in the Reef since 1900.

  • Recent coral recovery is expected be short-lived and is thought to be a rare occurrence.

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