Australia warns Unesco over placing barrier reef on ‘in danger’ list

Australia has warned that the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization risks damaging its own credibility if it follows through with a proposal to put the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list.

Warren Entsch, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef envoy, said he hoped the UN World Heritage Committee would reverse a draft decision made last month. Canberra has embarked on a frenetic lobbying campaign ahead of a vote scheduled for Friday.

UN officials said the move was intended to prompt action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast and has been damaged by climate change and coastal development.

But the debate over its Unesco status has become a front line in the battle between Australia’s conservative government, a laggard on climate policies that has yet to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and environmental campaigners.

It has also raised questions in Canberra about Beijing’s influence on international bodies, as the committee is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education.

Australia has spared no efforts in trying to influence the 21-country committee. Last week, it dispatched its environment minister on a lobbying tour of Europe.

Entsch even invited foreign ambassadors, including nine from countries with seats on the committee, on a snorkelling trip to educate them on the health of the reef. 

“We showed the ambassadors areas that were impacted by coral bleaching and they were amazed at the regrowth and the diversity of the coral,” he said.

“Unesco plays an important role and if it wants to maintain credibility it needs to follow its own protocols.”

Australia appeared to have won the support of 12 countries for an amendment that would delay an “in danger” classification until at least 2023. But this will depend on the final vote.

Tian Xuejun delivers a during the opening of the 44th session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee in China’s Fujian province
Tian Xuejun, a Chinese official who also heads Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, has been accused by Australia of targeting the country © Song Weiwei/Xinhua via AP

But scientists and environmental groups have warned that Canberra’s aggressive lobbying risked further politicising the world heritage protection system. They added that trying to shift the focus to China, with leaks to Australian media suggesting that Tian may have influenced the committee to target the country, is part of a diplomatic spat and a distraction.

“The ‘in danger’ listing has got nothing to do with China,” said Charlie Veron, a marine scientist who has catalogued and named about one-fifth of the world’s coral species.

“This is about the government’s reluctance to take responsibility for anything to do with climate change, whether it’s the plight of the Great Barrier Reef or the recent bushfires.”

Tian said this week that the draft decision was based on scientific data presented to the committee by Australian authorities.

This included a 2019 report by the Australian government agency that manages the reef, which concluded that it had a very poor outlook following multiple coral bleaching events linked to rising water temperatures.

Tian told journalists on Sunday that Australia should attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and fulfil the duty of world heritage protection instead of making “groundless accusations” against other states.

Canberra argues that adding the reef to the list fails to recognise efforts taken to restore coral health and could dent its international reputation as a natural wonder. The reef accounts for 64,000 jobs and contributes A$6bn (US$4.4bn) to the Australian economy, according to a recent report.

“The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. Billions upon billions of dollars continue to be spent on it and there has been a lot of work from different stakeholders,” said Entsch.

He added that it was unfortunate that Unesco had prioritised Australia’s climate policies when he would like to see his own government move faster on committing to net zero by 2050.

“My concern is that ‘in danger’ listing would suggest all the efforts made so far to protect the reef are worth absolutely nothing and stakeholders would say, ‘Why do we bother?’” he said.

Most scientists and environmental campaigners disagreed, and said the Australian position reeked of hypocrisy.

“A strongly scientific-driven process is being manipulated and presented as a political process when it is clearly not,” said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF, the conservation group.

“There is a real irony in the Australian government making an accusation that the committee was ‘politically motivated’ and then engaging in a frenzy of political lobbying over the past three weeks.”

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