Unesco wants to list Great Barrier Reef as “endangered” site, Australia disputes

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In a preliminary report published Monday, Unesco recommends placing the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site since 1981, on the list of sites in danger, because of its deterioration. Australia, for its part, has announced that it will organize to contest this project.

Unesco has announced its wish to inscribe the Great Barrier Reef on the list of “endangered” World Heritage sites due to its degradation caused by climate change. Australia, on the other hand, does not hear it that way: the government announced Tuesday, June 22, that it would challenge this project.

This Unesco recommendation comes at a time when the long-term prospects for the largest coral reef in the world, inscribed on the World Heritage List since 1981, have deteriorated considerably: it is necessary to take measures to counter the effects of global warming, declared the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The deterioration is mainly due to the recurrence of coral bleaching episodes, a consequence of climatic upheavals.

>> To review: “Global warming: the Great Barrier Reef is dying”

For environmental organizations, this recommendation shows the government’s lack of will to reduce carbon emissions.

“I agree that global climate change poses the greatest threat to coral reefs but it is wrong, in our opinion, to designate the best managed reef in the world for a list (of sites) ‘in danger’,” said Australian Environment Minister Susan Ley.

Australia will organize to challenge this project, a “about-face” after “previous assurances from UN officials,” said Susan Ley in a statement, one month before the next session of the World Heritage Committee Unesco, scheduled for July from China.

According to her, Unesco’s decision does not take into account the billions of dollars spent to try to protect the Barrier, located in the north-east of Australia. It “sends a bad signal to countries which are not making the investments we are making in the protection of coral reefs”, argued the minister.

“Very poor” prospects

The preliminary report, however, highlights Australia’s efforts to improve the quality of the reefs, particularly financially. But he regrets “that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem (of the Barrier) has deteriorated further, going from mediocre to very mediocre”, referring in particular to two episodes of bleaching in 2016 and 2017.

Susan Ley said she had an interview on the night of Monday to Tuesday with the Director General of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, to tell her of “our strong disappointment”.

Registration on the list of endangered sites is not considered a sanction by Unesco. Some countries even see it as a way of raising awareness in the international community and helping to safeguard their heritage.

Australia has not set a carbon neutral target by 2050. Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country hoped to achieve it “as soon as possible” without jeopardizing jobs and businesses. Australia is one of the world’s largest importers of coal and natural gas.

For the environmental organization Climate Council, the recommendation of Unesco covers “with shame the federal government, which remains passive in front of the decline of the coral reef instead of protecting it”.

It “clearly and unequivocally shows that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially against climate change,” commented WWF Oceans Officer Richard Leck.

Three episodes of bleaching in five years

Besides its invaluable natural or scientific point of view, it is estimated that the coral reef, which stretches over 2,300 kilometers in length, generates US $ 4.8 billion in revenue for the Australian tourism sector.

In December, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said climate change was the greatest threat to natural wonders and the Great Barrier had joined the list of sites classified as “critical”.

For Imogen Zethoven, consultant with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, this preliminary report shows how limiting global warming to + 1.5 ° C is essential to safeguarding this gem.

She estimates that the climatic data recorded in Australia correspond rather to a rise of 2.5 to 3 ° C in temperature, a level which will “inevitably” lead to the “destruction of the Great Reef and all the coral reefs in the world. “.

The Great Barrier has already experienced three episodes of bleaching in five years, while half of the corals have disappeared since 1995 due to the rise in water temperature.

Bleaching is a wasting phenomenon which results in discoloration. It is caused by the rise in water temperature which causes the expulsion of the symbiotic algae which gives the coral its vivid color.

The Barrier has also been affected by several cyclones and is also threatened by agricultural runoff and by the purple acanthaster, a starfish that eats corals.

With AFP and Reuters