UNESCO calls on Australia to commit to 1.5°C limit to protect the Great Barrier Reef

Dec 3, 2022
Heart Reef arial shot taken near Whitsunday islands, Queensland.

UNESCO has once again raised the alarm about the state of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

A UNESCO and IUCN technical report released earlier this week found that the Reef should be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the combined effects of global heating, agricultural runoff and destructive fishing. It concluded the Australian and Queensland Governments should strengthen and accelerate efforts to protect it.

None of this is surprising but what is surprising was the response from Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. Usually calm, thoughtful and solutions focused, she sounded remarkably like her predecessor Sussan Ley, accusing UNESCO of “singling out” Australia.

So, what exactly did the report say, how could the government respond positively to its findings and what are the next steps?

The report was written by two technical experts from UNESCO and IUCN who visited Australia in March this year, while the Morrison Government was still in power and the sixth mass coral bleaching event was unfolding on the Great Barrier Reef.

The report makes 22 recommendations based on the record and policies of the Morrison and Queensland Governments. Despite changes in Canberra, the recommendations are still highly relevant.

A high priority recommendation is that by 31 December this year the Australian Government should make a clear commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the efforts required to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and include this commitment in the overarching plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef: the Reef 2050 Plan.

This is the first time in the 50-year history of the World Heritage Convention that UNESCO and IUCN have made a specific 1.5°C recommendation about a World Heritage site. It sets an incredibly important benchmark for all climate-sensitive sites on the World Heritage List.

The report makes a similar recommendation to the Queensland Government, calling for the 1.5°C target to be supported by state legislation and clear, actionable steps in the state’s strategies and plans.

There is no doubt that in a few short months the Albanese Government has turned around Australia’s international climate reputation. We are no longer in the “climate naughty corner”. However, the Australian megafires of 2019-20, the extreme floods of 2022 and the increasingly frequent extreme heatwaves suffered by the Great Barrier Reef demand much, much more.

The Great Barrier Reef is our double-edged sword. It is a global icon, a natural wonder, a trip of a lifetime for many, supporting 64,000 jobs (pre-COVID) and generating billions of dollars for the Australian economy. On the other side, it is extremely vulnerable to increasing sea surface temperature and ocean acidification. It is a global media magnet for the catastrophic consequences of burning fossil fuels. The Reef has been called a barometer of what mankind is doing to destroy the natural world.

Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and LNG, yet we pride ourselves on being the world’s best Reef managers, whilst recognising that climate change is the biggest threat to the Reef. The contradiction is glaring.

The two technical experts UNESCO and IUCN have had the courage to point out the issue of Australia’s fossil fuels:

“… while Australia may only contribute 1.3% of global emissions this is disproportionate to the 0.3% of global population represented by the nation. The consequential emissions associated with key commodity exports of fossil fuels from Australia have been estimated to account for around 8.6% of total greenhouse gas emissions in Asia and the Pacific and about 4% of global emissions. According to an analysis released by British climate and energy thinktank Ember at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions from coal power in the world on a per capita basis.”

However, including a recommendation regarding Australia’s fossil fuel exports must have been a step too far.

There is another aspect to the double-edged sword: data. Australia has a relative abundance of data about the Great Barrier Reef due to our investments in research and monitoring. We produce abundant evidence that the outlook for the Reef is “very poor”. Most other World Heritage listed coral reefs are in developing countries that can afford to do this. The fact is that Australia, ironically, is hoisted by its own petard by producing the science that warrants the Reef being added to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Australia being “singled out” is a consequence of our wealth, our world-leading science and research, our transparency. We shouldn’t be surprised about it; we shouldn’t be defensive.

The Government responded to the UNESCO/IUCN report by saying that its 43% by 2030 and net zero by 2050 policies keep 1.5°C “within reach”. This is not the same as a clear commitment to reduce emissions in line with 1.5°C.

There is a great deal of goodwill towards the Albanese Government and the massive task it has after a decade of climate inaction. At COP27, the government fought to save the 1.5°C Paris goal against strong pushback by states that wanted to water it down. The government could turn an In Danger listing of the Reef from a perceived threat to an opportunity.

Australia could accept the scientific reality that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. We could become a champion of climate action to protect all climate-sensitive World Heritage sites, especially in our region. This would enhance our relationship with our Pacific neighbours and position us well to host the climate COP in 2026.

The World Heritage Committee did not meet this year as the Chair was Russia. Russia stepped down a week ago. The Chair for 2023 is likely to be Saudi Arabia and the meeting is likely to be June/July. The UNESCO/IUCN report will be presented to the 21-member Committee, along with a draft decision informed by the report. The Committee will make a decision on whether or not to inscribe the Reef on the In Danger List. From now until then, Australia could lead a coalition of states with climate-sensitive World Heritage sites to urge the international community to act with far more urgency to keep 1.5°C alive and protect the world’s most precious cultural and natural treasures.

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