Australia’s magnificent Great Barrier Reef holds the United Nations’ designation of a world UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) site. The UN’s World Heritage Committee bestows that title on landmarks or locations deemed exceptional for their cultural, historical, scientific, or other significance. But the reef’s status is in jeopardy because of the last several years’ concern for the health of the coral that created and sustain the barrier.
If the reef continues in decline, it may be labeled “in danger” by the UN committee, and changes to a UNESCO site can mean the status gets stripped.
The UN committee had recommended adding the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem to its “in danger” list due to coral bleaching. But on Friday, Australia garnered enough international support to defer that status change for two years. That gives the nation a little time to address the damage that’s occurring at the reef—and hopefully stop and reverse it.
At a committee meeting in China last week, representatives from 16 of the 21 nations participating spoke in favor of Australia’s proposed amendments to the draft that would designate the reef as endangered. The decision on that status was deferred until 2023.
The nations pushing to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef also claim that the cause of its deterioration is climate change. But the UN has not yet finalized a global policy on dealing with the climate issues that it says are to blame.
Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley says downgrading the reef before addressing policy made no sense. She emphasized Australia’s commitment to preserving the national treasure that lies off the northeast Australian coast. And she asked the global agency to work on securing consensus on its own policy before penalizing Australia for not complying.
Australia began in 2014 developing a long-term plan to improve the reef’s health. That blueprint is called the Reef 2050 Plan. But even since 2014, the reef has suffered significant bleaching. About two thirds of the coral are damaged.
Ley claims the threat to strip the UNESCO status is politically oriented. Many in Australia’s conservative government see the move as an attempt to pressure the nation into reducing its “greenhouse gas” emissions to zero by 2050. The nation still has active coal mines with unpopular plans to expand.
(A diver monitors the health of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. The reef is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that could change as coral dies off due to bleaching. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority via AP)