UNESCO: Great Barrier Reef Loses “In Danger” Status Despite Massive Destruction

If you’re in the least bit curious about green news, you probably know about the plague that has befallen the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Due to severe bleaching in consecutive years and other harmful factors, this UNESCO heritage site may die off by the end of the century. However, the most shocking news came this week as the UN environmental protection agency announced that this world wonder is “no longer in danger.”

RELATED: [Coral Bleaching: Great Barrier Reef Dying But Not Dead Yet]

What kind of doublethink is this, you wonder?  We’re wondering, too, seeing that the two beliefs clearly contradict each other. Just last month, the UN body warned the Australian government about the fact that climate change might ruin the Great Barrier Reef – along with other 28 world heritage coral reefs – by 2100. How can the corals be both safe and dying at the same time?

Big Win vs Terrible Mistake

While the federal government considers this a great win, reef experts dread the potential outcomes. According to scientists, 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing massive destruction. In spite of the scientific proof, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted on July 4, 2017, to take the Australian aquatic reserve off the “in danger” list.

As you were probably already suspecting, climate change is the explanation for the blatant contradiction. Climate change is also responsible for the distinction between a vague, far-off threat and the less urgent threats the reef faces. The World Heritage Committee – comprised of 21 nation representatives – seems to have determined Australia should step in and act against local risks.

However, the government shouldn’t be accused for the problems caused by climate change. Consequently, UNESCO has rewarded projects for fighting starfish outbreaks and sedimentation, in spite of the fact that hundreds of kilometers of coral reef experienced severe bleaching and turned white.

RELATED: [Coral vs Coal: Great Barrier Reef Worth US$42 Billion, So Will Adani’s Coal Mine Move Forward?]

Great Barrier Reef in Dire Need of Protection

In the report released after the meeting, the Committee identified climate change as “the most significant overall threat to the future of the property”.

But any potential action against this threat has remained vague at best. While Josh Frydenberg, the Australian Federal Environment Minister, expressed his joy over the apparent victory, the local reef experts watched perplexed.

The Federal and Queensland Government drafted a project for long-term sustainability in response to the UN body cautioning about the reef’s health. However, according to Dr Dean Miller with the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, the ‘Reef 2050’ plan is completely obsolete because there’s no way the corals will survive that long without proactive action. In fact, the ultimate destiny of the Australian reef will be sealed in the following decade.

Dr Steven Miles, Minister Frydenberg’s Queensland counterpart, is the head of the department that helped outline the Reef 2050 plan. However, even though he publicly acknowledged the important role of climate change in the reef’s destruction, the report largely ignored this immediate threat.

What It Means to Be on the “In Danger” List

The UNESCO World Heritage List includes 1,052 sites of cultural and environmental importance, including the Australian coral reef. However, the UN body also keeps another list with places considered “in danger” of losing their prestigious heritage status. The list currently includes 55 entries. But what exactly does it mean?

In addition to having the opportunity to access World Heritage Committee-allocated funds, being on the “in danger” list also encourages the international community to contribute technical expertise or funds to help the location in need of protection. The reef – comprised of thousands of smaller coral reefs – received the status of World Heritage site in 1981.

This week, the UN’s World Heritage Committee is gathering in Polish castle in Krakow to revise the UNESCO World Heritage List. The procedure takes place on a yearly basis. More than 230 natural heritage sites around the world are on the list (such as the Grand Canyon, the Okavango Delta), as well as around 1000 cultural spots (like the Sydney Opera House, Vienna’s Historic Center). The chance to get on this select list brings with it international prestige and lots of tourism dollars.

healthy coral reef

Healthy coral reef / Credit

What about the Great Barrier Reef?

The Australian reserve represents the largest coral system in the world. Home to more than 400 species of coral, 4,000 types of mollusk, and 1,500 types of fish, the Great Barrier Reef has an immeasurable environmental worth. However, a Deloitte report in June revealed that the reef’s social, economic, and iconic brand value was worth about $56 billion.

RELATED: [Great Barrier Reef Hit by Mass Bleaching Second Year in a Row]

For the past three years, several Federal Environment Ministers have refused to become responsible for the reef’s delisting. Successive ministers lobbied the World Heritage Committee not to list the Great Barrier Reef “in danger”. But, in spite of their efforts, the coral remained on the UN’s “in danger” watch list. The Committee postponed the final decision for 2017, namely this month, in Krakow, Poland.

Meanwhile, the federal government drafted a plan to reduce the environmental strain on the Great Barrier reef. The plan, which Dr Watson deems good and achievable, also proposed mitigating the potential effects of climate change. However, in reality, there has been little action towards this goal.

Meanwhile, the GBR underwent two consecutive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. It means the water’s temperature had become so high that the coral can no longer thrive in it. Before the 2016 disaster, the Australian reef had suffered only two other bleaching events over the course of 17 years. Reef scientists strongly believe that global warming is at least partially to blame for the bleaching. Consequently, the environmental changes affected over half of the entire reef. Some of the white coral will never return to its vibrant colors.

Politics & Science

The decision announced this week couldn’t possibly be based solely on scientific proof. The World Heritage Committee voiced its concern about the state of the coral. It also asked the Australian government to report on the progress at the meeting of the Committee in 2020. However, Dr Watson believes that the Committee’s decision was highly influenced by the fierce lobbying from Australia. The voting process is unknown, and everything happens behind closed doors. If the decision were based on the science, the Great Barrier Reef would clearly still be considered “in danger.”

Header Image: financialtimes.com

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Rick Carlstrom

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