Australia to challenge UNESCO downgrade of Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef was worth an estimated $4-billion a year in tourism revenue for the Australian economy before the coronavirus pandemic. AFP/Sarah Lai

BRISBANE - Australia said it will strongly oppose a UNESCO plan to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" over deterioration caused by climate change.

The UN body released a draft report on Monday recommending the reef's World Heritage status be downgraded because of its dramatic coral decline, after years of public threats to do so.

Environmental campaigners said the decision highlighted Australia's lack of action to curb the carbon emissions which contribute to global warming.

READ: Great Barrier Reef's corals in steep decline

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Australia would challenge the move, accusing UN officials of backflipping on their assurances ahead of the World Heritage Committee's 44th session in China next month, where the recommendation will be formally considered.

"Politics have subverted a proper process and for the World Heritage Committee to not even foreshadow this listing is, I think, appalling," she told reporters in Canberra.

The UN body did not consider the billions of dollars spent attempting to protect the world's largest coral reef, she added.

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

AFP | Gal ROMA

The committee's draft report did commend Australia's efforts to improve reef quality and its financial commitment. 

But it noted "with the utmost concern and regret... that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor," referring to Australia's move to downgrade the reef's health status after back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

Ley said she had spoken to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay overnight Monday to express "very clearly our strong disappointment, even bewilderment".

READ: Great Barrier Reef suffers mass coral bleaching event

Placement on the UN body's in-danger list is not considered a sanction. According to UNESCO, some nations have their sites added to gain international attention and help to save them but it is seen as a dishonour by others.

The downgrade recommendation for the Great Barrier Reef prompted environmental groups to take aim at the Australian government's reluctance to take stronger climate action.

READ: Cloud brightening, 'sun shields' to save Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef has now suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years, losing half its corals since 1995 as ocean temperatures have climbed.

Bleaching occurs when changes in ocean temperatures stress healthy corals, causing them to expel algae living in their tissues, which drains them of their vibrant colours and can lead to their death.

It has also been battered by several cyclones as climate change drives more extreme weather and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish -- which eat the coral -- in recent decades.

Source
AFP

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