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Great Barrier Reef: Australia avoids UNESCO downgrade

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

The move by the UN body has faced criticism by environmental activists.

After a concerted lobbying effort by Canberra, members of the World Heritage Committee – including leading fossil fuel producers Russia and Saudi Arabia – voted in Fuzhou, China 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 of telling Australia to report on the reef’s status by 2022.

The 2,300-km-long (1,400-mile-long) ecosystem has suffered three mass coral bleaching events since 2016, 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 this month to personally lobby member states on the committee, while key ambassadors were invited on a reef snorkelling trip.

On Friday, Ley welcomed the decision, thanking “esteemed delegates for recognising Australia’s commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef”.

Selina Ward, a Coral reef scientist from the University of Queens, said the government needs to take “dramatic action” in order to stop the damage.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the Great Barrier is under severe threat,” Ward told Al Jazeera.

“The data is there. The Great Barrier is still beautiful, and we can still save it, but we are getting more frequent mass bleaching events, which frequently result in large mortality on the reef… We are industrialising the coastline of the Great Barrier reef, which adds to water quality problems…

“We’ve lost considerable sections of the Great Barrier Reef, and if we don’t take dramatic action on climate change, we will get more and more bleaching events, and the reef will not have time to recover,” she added.

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