The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to its list of sites “in danger,” despite overwhelming scientific evidence that suggests it’s at risk of another mass bleaching this coming summer – and scientists are questioning why.
At its meeting in Paris on Monday, the committee said the Australian government had made “significant progress” but the reef remains under “serious threat” from climate change and pollution.
The committee added that “sustained action to implement the priority recommendations of the mission is essential in order to improve (its) long-term resilience,” and asked the government to report back with an update by February 1 – at the height of the Australian summer.
But scientists say there’s little prospect of radical improvement just six months from now, especially as climate forecasters say the arrival of El Niño, a natural climate fluctuation which typically has a warming impact, will likely make oceans even hotter.
“Current global emissions policies put us on track for about 2.7 degrees (Celsius). So, with our current policies and current emissions, we’re very clearly on track to see at least a 99% decline in global coral reefs, and if that doesn’t scream the reef’s in danger, then I’m not sure what will,” said Reid.
Covering nearly 133,000 square miles (345,000 square kilometers), the Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1,500 species of fish and 411 species of hard corals. It contributes billions of dollars to the Australian economy each year, and is promoted heavily to foreign tourists as one of the country’s – and the world’s – greatest natural wonders.
Since the World Heritage Committee first raised the possibility of an “in danger” rating in 2021, successive Australian governments have been working hard to convince the committee that they are diligent custodians.
Environment minister Tanya Plibersek told reporters Tuesday she made no apology for lobbying UNESCO to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the “in danger” list.
“Lobbying is about telling the truth about what we’re doing,” said Plibersek, listing off the Labor government’s major environmental policies since coming to power in 2022, including spending millions of dollars on improving water quality and reef management, as well as measures to reduce planet-heating pollution including setting emissions targets and electrifying homes.
‘Some recovery’ but more work needed
Under the previous government, the Great Barrier Reef suffered severe mass bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020, caused by hotter ocean temperatures as the world continues to burn planet-heating fossil fuels.
Another bleaching event in 2022 – the first during a La Niña event, El Niño’s counterpart, which tends to have a cooling influence – raised serious concerns about its outlook and the country’s management plans.
In Monday’s draft decision, the committee said the reef had experienced “some recovery” since the last bleaching event and that populations of a number of key species were increasing or stable.
The committee also noted its “appreciation” for the government’s recent actions, but said more needed to be done to improve water quality and to “strengthen the Reef 2050 Plan to include clear government commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions.”
Plibersek said the government was well aware more work needed to be done, to protect not only the reef but the thousands of Australians whose jobs rely on it.
“No-one needs to tell Australia to look after the reef today. No-one takes protecting the reef more seriously. I am pleased that’s been acknowledged by the international community,” Plibersek said.
But scientists pointed out that the reef’s outlook is unlikely to improve between now and February 1, the deadline for the government to issue another progress update.
“The UNESCO update on the Great Barrier has kicked the can down the road – delaying the next assessment on listing the Reef as “in danger” by another year,” said Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, in a written statement.
On Tuesday, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said the arrival of El Niño was “likely in the coming weeks,” though the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Meteorological Organization have already announced its arrival.
“As El Niño conditions strengthen once more, it’s very likely we’ll see another mass bleaching event next summer, just after the report is written,” Hughes said.
David Booth, professor of Marine Ecology at UTS and president of the Australian Coral Reef Society, pointed out the apparent contradiction between the government’s stated efforts to protect the reef and its recent approval for new fossil fuel projects.
According to the Australia Institute’s Coal Mine Tracker, the government has approved three new coal mines or expansions since coming to power in May 2022.
“Will the Federal Government finally face up to reality and stop all coal and gas production and export – especially new gas developments such as the Adani field? It is almost too late to save the Reef, along with its huge tourism and fishing industries,” said Booth in a statement.
Jodie Rummer, a professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University, said the “in danger” listing was “irrelevant,” and the world needs to face up to the severe threat that accelerated climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef and others worldwide.
“That’s what’s going to make the single biggest difference in how these extreme events these marine heat waves will be faced both now and into the future.”