Australia race against time to avoid ‘endangered’ rating in UNESCO vote

(CNN) – The Australian government and a United Nations agency are clashing this week over whether the Great Barrier Reef is “in danger” of losing its “outstanding universal value”.

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is due to vote Friday on whether the reef, which is on the World Heritage List, should be officially qualified as “in danger”. The designation means the site is threatened, and if no action is taken to address the concerns, it could lose its World Heritage status.

Australia has desperately tried to avoid this scenario through a wave of last-minute lobbying, including taking ambassadors to snorkel the reef.

His efforts may have paid off. Twelve of the 21 member countries of the Committee appeared to be opposed to the application of the “endangered” rating to the barrier reef, according to an amendment proposal published Tuesday on the UNESCO website.

Fish swimming through coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on September 22, 2014.

William West / AFP / Getty Images

But the pressure to impose the rating still comes from scientists and celebrities, with a letter published the same day signed by 13 public figures – actors, former politicians and journalists – urging the committee to “endorse the UNESCO recommendation”.

“There is still time to save the Great Barrier Reef, but Australia and the world must act now,” read the letter, signed by “Aquaman” actor Jason Momoa and ocean explorer Philippe. Cousteau, among others.

Battle for the reef

The Great Barrier Reef stretches nearly 133,000 square miles (345,000 square kilometers) off the northeast coast of Australia and is home to over 1,600 species of fish and 600 species of hard and soft corals. . A vital marine ecosystem, it also contributes $ 6.4 billion a year to the Australian economy and supports 64,000 jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
But a series of natural disasters and the growing effects of climate change have severely affected the reef, including widespread coral bleaching. A five-year survey conducted by the Australian government in 2019 found that the state of the natural wonder had deteriorated from “poor” to “very poor”.
In a report released on June 21, a UNESCO monitoring mission said that despite the Australian government’s work to improve the situation on the reef, “there is no doubt that the property faces real danger.” .

But the Australian government strongly opposed UNESCO’s conclusion. Environment Minister Sussan Ley flew to Europe in July in a last-ditch attempt to convince the other 20 World Heritage members to vote against the measure. Australia is currently on the rotating committee of 21 countries.

In a proposed amendment on Tuesday, 12 committee members, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Spain, appeared to support a suggestion not to place an “endangered” rating on the barrier reef, but no final decision. was not taken.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ley said that in France she had met with delegates from several countries.

“Australia’s position remains that the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world, backed by more than $ 3 billion in Commonwealth and state government funding. Australia is concerned that the draft registration process did not include appropriate levels of consultation or a responsive mission, the spokesperson said.

But Dr Fanny Douvere, head of the World Heritage Center marine program, defended the “endangered” rating as “impartial” and “science-based”.

She said that regardless of the World Heritage Council’s vote on Friday, UNESCO’s draft decision that the reef was “in danger” would always represent their considered opinion.

“Evidence is not something that we investigate, evidence is something that is very clearly described,” she said.

“It simply would not have been credible not to alert the international community to the situation.”

An alert to the world

The UNESCO World Heritage List contains hundreds of sites considered to be of great value to future generations, from natural wonders such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States to cultural wonders like the Great Wall of China.

Each year, the World Heritage Committee meets to decide whether to add new properties to the list and to assess whether any of the current properties are in danger.

For example, when it meets this month, the World Heritage Committee will also decide whether or not to place Venice on the “endangered” list, due to a series of threats to the historic city, including the great ones. cruise ships.
According to the UNESCO website, of the 1,121 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, only 53 are currently classified as “endangered” – these include the Everglades National Park in Florida, also facing challenges related to climate change, and the site of Palmyra in Syria.

Douvere of the Marine Program said an “endangered” list sends a signal to the international community that the sovereign nation responsible for this property is struggling to maintain it and needs help. UNESCO will then work with the country to determine what needs to happen to ensure the heritage site is saved.

“It is a serious decision, it is not something that we take overnight … It is really an alert to the international community that a place that is on the World Heritage List, something that we want to preserve for future generations … loses its exceptional character, universal value, ”she declared.

This is not the first time that the Great Barrier Reef has been at risk of being added to the “endangered” list, but the Australian government has still said it is “stunned” by the site’s inclusion in the report. of June from UNESCO.

“This draft recommendation was made without examining the reef firsthand and without the latest information,” Ley said in a statement at the time.

In the past, “endangered” ratings have been lifted after competent authorities addressed issues raised by UNESCO.

For example, the second largest coral reef in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef, was no longer considered “endangered” after the government imposed a moratorium on oil exploration in the region and tightened laws. forest to protect local mangroves.

Scientists support “endangered” rating

The Australian government confirmed its insistence the reef is not in danger with a new report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science released on Monday which showed an increase in hard coral in three regions of the Great Reef de Corail over the past year.

“The past two years have revealed that recovery is underway across much of GBR, a promising sign that GBR still has the capacity and ecological functions to recover from disturbances,” the report said.

But prominent Australian scientists have said new coral growth is fragile and supported UNESCO’s decision to put the Great Barrier Reef on the “endangered” list.

Scott Heron, associate professor of physics at James Cook University in Queensland, said it was “very clear” to him that the reef was in serious trouble.

“The threats facing the Great Barrier Reef are serious, they are ongoing and there has been no achievement of the targets that have been set,” he said. Heron said that although some corals have returned after bleaching events in recent years, much of the regrowth was a fast-growing variety that was particularly susceptible to heat stress and death.

“This year of information is variability that on its own would mask the longer-term downtrend,” he said.

In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for Minister Ley said the Australian government opposes the ‘endangered’ rating, “not only because of our concern about the reef, but because we believe the process risk of undermining the integrity of the World Heritage system. “

But Lesley Hughes, spokesperson for the Climate Council and a prominent biology professor at Macquarie University, said she believes the Australian government is also worried about being embarrassed by its poor record on climate change.

In a report released by the UN in July, assessing progress in achieving the global sustainable development goals, Australia was ranked last for climate action.

“So while the government indicates how much money it has spent on local adaptation (on the barrier reef), they are still not serious and have never been serious in fighting change climate, ”said Hughes.

“An ‘endangered’ list of the reef will simply draw more international attention to the government’s failure in this regard.”

CNN’s Helen Regan contributed to this article.

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About Kristina McManus

Kristina McManus

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