More fossil fuels a death knell for Great Barrier Reef

August 30, 2021
Extinction Rebellion WA action for the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Miles Tweedie Photography

The World Heritage Committee’s July 23 decision not to place the Great Barrier Reef on a list of “endangered” world heritage sites was a win for the fossil fuel industry.

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report to the World Heritage Committee had recommended the reef be put on the List of World Heritage in Danger because the ecosystem had “deteriorated from poor to very poor.”

The report emphasised that the 1.5° Celsius target, as outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, is the “critical threshold for the property”. It said mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 had further degraded the reef, and rising global average temperatures will cause more bleaching and degradation.

UNESCO said other major threats to the reef include pollutants from land-based run-off from agriculture, as well as from coastal development and overuse.

The report stressed the urgency of the crisis and called on parties to the agreement to “fulfil their responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef.”

Despite these warnings, the federal government launched a lobbying campaign to block the “in danger” listing. Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley flew overseas to lobby ambassadors in Budapest, Madrid, Sarajevo, Paris, Oman and the Maldives.

A Great Barrier Reef snorkelling trip was organised for ambassadors representing countries with voting rights on the World Heritage Committee. Warren Entsch, the federal government’s special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, said the purpose of the trip was to provide “first hand information”.

The lobbying worked.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain backed Australia’s push for the heritage committee to delay any decision on the “in danger” listing until at least 2023. Other countries that voted against the “in danger” listing included Saint Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mali, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Spain.

However, this does not let the government off the hook.

The vote only deferred a formal decision on the reef’s status until 2022, when the World Heritage Committee meets again. UNESCO will also conduct an audit of the health of reef within the next six months.

Why is the government so worried about the “in danger” listing? And why has it failed to listen to scientific institutions, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which states that climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef?

If the Great Barrier Reef is listed as being in danger, the pressure from the international community on Australia to significantly reduce its fossil fuel emissions would be much greater.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that a 1.5 % rise in temperature will destroy 70–90% of reefs globally. For the Great Barrier Reef to be saved, all new coal and gas mines need to be halted.

Meanwhile, the Climate Council, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Extinction Rebellion will ratchet up their campaigns to save the reef in the lead-up to the Glasgow COP26 conference on climate change beginning on November 12.

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