(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”.
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
“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
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.
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 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.
Scientists support “endangered” rating
“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.
“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.