CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s environment minister said Tuesday her government will lobby against the inclusion of the Great Barrier Reef on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites.
Officials from the UN cultural agency and the International Union for Conservation of Nature released a report on Monday warning that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action, the world’s largest coral reef is in danger.
The report, which recommended moving the Great Barrier Reef to endangered status, followed a 10-day mission in March to the famous reef system off Australia’s northeast coast that was added to the World Heritage list in 1981.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the report was a reflection of Australia’s previous Conservative government, which was ousted in a May election after nine years in power.
She said the new centre-left Labor Party government has already addressed several of the report’s concerns, including action on climate change.
“We will state very clearly to UNESCO that there is no need to highlight the Great Barrier Reef in this way” with an endangered list, Plibersek told reporters.
“The reason UNESCO in the past has flagged a place as at risk is because they wanted to see more government investment or more government action, and since the change of government, both have happened,” he added.
The new government has legislated to commit Australia to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The previous government only committed to a reduction from 26% to 28% by the end of the decade.
Plibersek said his government has also pledged A$1.2 billion ($798 million) to care for the reef and canceled plans by the previous government to build two large dams in Queensland state that would have affected the reef’s water quality.
“If the Great Barrier Reef is in danger, then all the world’s coral reefs are in danger,” Plibersek said. “If this World Heritage site is in danger, then most World Heritage sites around the world are in danger from climate change.”
The report says the Australian federal government and Queensland authorities should adopt more ambitious emissions reduction targets in line with international efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from the time preindustrial.
The minority Greens party, which wants Australia to cut its emissions by 75% by the end of the decade, called on the government to do more to fight climate change in light of the report.
Jodie Rummer, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townville who has worked on the reef for more than a decade, supported calls for Australia to target a 75% emissions reduction.
“We are taking action, but that action needs to be much quicker and much more urgent,” Rummer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“We cannot say that we are doing everything possible for the reef at this time. we are not. We need to send that message to the rest of the world that we are doing everything we can for the reef and that means we need to take urgent action on emissions immediately,” he added.
Comments from Australian officials, both at the federal and state levels, will be reviewed before Paris-based UNESCO makes an official proposal to the World Heritage committee.
In July last year, the previous Australian government won enough international support to postpone a UNESCO attempt to downgrade the reef to “endangered” status due to damage caused by climate change.
The Great Barrier Reef represents about 10% of the world’s coral reef ecosystems. The network of more than 2,500 reefs covers 134,000 square miles.
Australian government scientists reported in May that more than 90% of Great Barrier Reef corals surveyed in the past year had bleached, in the fourth such massive event in seven years.
The bleaching is caused by global warming, but this is the first reef bleaching event during a La Niña weather pattern, which is associated with cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority said in your annual report.
Bleaching in 2016, 2017, and 2020 damaged two-thirds of the coral.
Coral bleaches in response to heat stress, and scientists expect most of the coral to recover from the latest event.