By Neelabja Adkuloo
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee voted on July 5th at its 41st Congress in Krakow, Poland, to keep the Great Barrier Reef off of its “in danger” list. UNESCO also released its report on the grim future of coral ecosystems last month which predicted the death of 29 world heritage-listed reefs by 2100.
After a vigorous lobbying effort by Australia in 2015, the Great Barrier Reef narrowly avoided being designated “in danger” once again this year. Being on the danger list gives access to funds allocated by the World Heritage Committee, in addition to the technical expertise of the international community. Across the world, climate activists and scientists have condemned the announcement, calling it “farcical” and “short-sighted”. On the other hand, Australian Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg welcomed the decision as a “big win” for his nation.
Behind the government’s motives
The Great Barrier Reef was listed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. As the Australian government sees it, getting on this list will boost tourism revenue. Their argument for leaving the reef off of the “in danger” list entailed that a vast section of the reef is still healthy, and thus holds “outstanding universal value”. However, there is speculation that the government unjustifiably pressed the UN to omit the reef from the danger list.
Greenpeace has said that the government has tried to avoid the “embarrassment” of an “in danger” listing due to the negative impact on the country’s lucrative tourism industry. The logic here is that bad press on climate change could be bad for tourism. But this exposes the hypocrisy of the Australian government’s environmental policy: the loss of the Great Barrier could cost the region 1 million visitors a year. This would put 10,000 jobs at risk and drain $1 billion from the economy.
The science still points to trouble
Despite the decision, UNESCO has criticised Australia’s environmental policies. The committee in its draft report noted that the Turnbull government’s Reef 2050 program—dedicated to improving water quality along the famous 1500-mile stretch of reefs—is behind schedule. It also called on Queensland to better tackle the issue of land clearing and to submit a report of its protection efforts by December 1st, 2019.
One thing is crystal clear: this UNESCO ruling doesn’t change the situation the reef is facing. The science says the world’s largest coral reef system is undoubtedly in grave danger. The Great Barrier Reef has been plagued by massive bleaching from the onset of 2014 owing to agricultural and industrial pollutants and a strong El Niño cycle. The back-to-back bleaching incidents in 2015 and 2016 marked the first time the reef has not had several years to recover between such harmful events. The large-scale devastation is due to the warming of the waters in the Pacific Ocean driven by climate change and coal burning.
Complications from coal
A letter from the group Ocean Elders has urged Turnbull to reject the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine, which it says will have a cataclysmic impact on the Reef. Once it’s built, the Carmichael mine near Rockhampton will transport coal to India via a mine in Queensland, located on the coastline of the heritage area. The letter suggests that the economic case for federal government support of the mine does not stack up, citing the “decreasing global market for coal”. Meanwhile, the head of Indian mining giant Adani has rejected claims by conservationists that a coal-laden water spill from Australia’s Abbot Point in late March possibly contaminated the Great Barrier Reef marine park.
A harsh wake-up call
With Donald Trump’s rollback of promises in the Paris Agreement, tackling climate change appears to have taken a global step backwards. Dr Dean Miller from the Great Barrier Reef Legacy team has called Australia’s Reef 2050 Plan defunct; the reef doesn’t have until 2050. Rather, “the fate of the Great Barrier Reef will be decided in the next 10 years.”
This move by UNESCO and the outcry over it is a definite wake-up call for those who do not believe in climate change or those who simply refuse to care.