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Great Barrier Reef avoids Unesco ‘in danger’ listing

A diver observes the state of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast in an archive photo.
Image Credit: AP

BRISBANE, Australia: Australia on Friday avoided listing the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered World Heritage Site by UNESCO, despite extensive damage to the coral ecosystem as a result of climate change.

Following Canberra’s concerted lobbying efforts, members of the World Heritage Committee voted to devote more time to Australian conservation efforts.

The group rejected a recommendation by UNESCO experts to downgrade the reef as a World Heritage Site due to the sharp decline in coral, instead asking Australia to report on the state of the reef by 2022.

The 2,300 km ecosystem has experienced three massive coral bleaching events since 2016, triggered by rising ocean temperatures due to global warming.

Areas once teeming with bright coral have turned into lifeless wastelands, and it is believed that two-thirds of the reef has been damaged in some way.

Despite the damage, the reef remains a vital tourist destination for Australia, which feared that the “endangered” label could scare off visitors after the pandemic.

Australian Environment Minister Susan Lei flew to Paris earlier this month to personally lobby committee members and key ambassadors were invited to snorkel on the reefs.

Lei on Friday welcomed the decision, thanking the “distinguished delegates for recognizing Australia’s commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

‘Day of Shame’

Environmental organizations considered this a political decision.

“This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history,” said Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

“This is not an achievement – this is a day of shame for the Australian government.”

A decision on the reef’s status has been delayed since 2015, when Australia successfully launched a similar diplomatic campaign and committed billions of dollars to protect the reefs.

“This story repeats itself,” said Climate Council spokesman Will Steffen.

“Australia must stop censoring science and start taking the steps we know are necessary to protect the reef,” he added.

While Australian government scientists say corals have shown signs of recovery over the past 12 months, they admit that the long-term outlook for the reef remains “very poor”.

In addition to coral bleaching, the reef is also susceptible to damage from cyclones and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish that feed on corals.

UNESCO blamed Australia for failing to meet key water quality and land management targets and targeting the country’s conservative government for its ineffective climate efforts.

Canberra faces growing international criticism for refusing to commit to zero emissions by 2050.

The government said it hopes to achieve the goal “as soon as possible” without harming the country’s fossil fuel-dependent economy.

The World Heritage Committee asked UNESCO to send a mission to observe the reef after Canberra criticized the agency for relying on existing reports to make its recommendations.

The decision came after Venice also avoided being listed as endangered on Thursday after Italy banned large cruise ships from entering the city center.

However, Liverpool’s waterfront has been completely removed from the list amid fears of overdevelopment, including plans to build a new football stadium.

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