Australia avoids Unesco downgrade of 'damaged' Great Barrier Reef


Australia recently garnered enough international support to defer an attempt by the United Nations’ cultural organisation to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status because of damage caused by climate change.

Unesco had recommended that its World Heritage Committee add the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem off the northeast Australian coast to the World Heritage in Danger list, mainly due to rising ocean temperatures.

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Australian-proposed amendments to the draft decision at a committee meeting in China recently would have deferred the “in danger” question until 2023.

But Norway moved amendments that put the reef back on the committee’s agenda at its annual meeting next June.

In the meantime, a monitoring mission will visit the reef to determine how the impact of climate change can be managed.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef managed to defer an attempt by Unesco to downgrade its World Heritage status for two years. — Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority/APAustralia’s Great Barrier Reef managed to defer an attempt by Unesco to downgrade its World Heritage status for two years. — Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority/AP

Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the virtual meeting that downgrading the reef’s status before the committee had finalised its own climate change policy made no sense.

“Delegates, we ask only two things: time for experts to see first hand our commitment to the reef, its present condition and our management, and for the final climate policy to provide a consistent framework for addressing the impacts of climate change on all World Heritage properties,” she said from Australia, where she in in quarantine after lobbying delegates in Europe and the Middle East on the decision.

In 2014, Australia was warned that an “in danger” listing was being considered rather than being proposed for immediate action.

Australia had time to respond by developing a long-term plan to improve the reef’s health called the Reef 2050 Plan.

Since then, the reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and last year. The bleaching damaged two thirds of the coral.

Australia reacted angrily last month when the draft decision was published to remove the network of 2,500 reefs covering 348,000sq km from the World Heritage list it joined 40 years ago for its “outstanding universal value”.

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The “in danger” listing is one step away from losing all World Heritage standing.

“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” Ley said at the time.

Many in Australia’s conservative government saw the move as an attempt to pressure it into committing to reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 and to stop allowing coal mines to be expanded.

In arguing for the reef’s downgrade, Unesco World Heritage Center’s marine programme coordinator, Fanny Douvere, referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that global emissions needed to fall to zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

“Accelerated action on climate change on all possible levels, in accordance with the 1.5° target under the Paris Agreement for Climate Change, and the recovery of the property from poor water quality are both vital and are urgent to secure the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef for present and for future generations,” Douvere said.

Greenpeace said in a statement that the committee had missed an opportunity to shine a light on Australia’s neglect of a natural wonder.The Chinese host of the committee meeting in the city of Fuzhou last week defended the proposed “in danger” listing against Australian government suspicion that China influenced the finding for political reasons.

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“Australia, as a member state of the World Heritage Committee, should... attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and earnestly fulfil the duty of World Heritage protection instead of making groundless accusations against other states,” said Tian Xuejun, the Chinese vice minister of education and the president of this year’s session.

China’s representative said during the debate that his nation “supports the emerging consensus” to defer the “in danger” question.

Before the committee’s ruling, Jodie Rummer, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said the “in danger” designation was needed to get Australia to act on climate change.

“I think that’s the wake-up call that we need here in Australia, very much so,” Rummer said. “It’s the wake-up call that we need to cut our emissions and commit to net zero. It’s the wake-up call that we need to really put that spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.”

The deferral sidelines Australia’s management of the reef as an issue at elections due by May next year at which the government will seek a fourth three-year term. – AP

New sites to look out for

Here are Unesco’s nine newly inscribed properties for culture:

Cordouan Lighthouse in France

The Cordouan embodies “the great stages of the architectural and technological history of lighthouses and was built with the ambition of continuing the tradition of famous beacons of antiquity”, says Unesco. It illustrates the art of building lighthouses in a period when beacons played an important role as territorial markers, as well as instruments of safety.

The Cordouan Lighthouse is located off the coast of Le Verdon-sur-Mer in France. — AFPThe Cordouan Lighthouse is located off the coast of Le Verdon-sur-Mer in France. — AFP

Kakatiya Rudreshwara Temple in Telangana, India

Popularly known as Ramappa Temple, Kakatiya Rudreshware is located in Palampet village, which is about 200km from Hyderabad. It is the main Shiva temple in a walled complex built during the Kakatiyan period (1123–1323 CE).

Mathildenhohe Darmstadt in Germany

This place is a testimony to early modern architecture, urban planning and landscape design, all of which were influenced by the arts and crafts movement in Germany, as well as the Vienna Secession.

Padua’s 14th century fresco cycles in Italy

The fresco cycles illustrate how fresco art has developed over the centuries along a new creative impetus and an understanding of spatial representation.

Paseo del Prado and El Retiro Part in Spain

This site embodies a new idea of urban space and development from the enlightened absolutist period of the 18th century.

El Retiro Park in Madrid, Spain is now a Unesco world heritage site.  — ReutersEl Retiro Park in Madrid, Spain is now a Unesco world heritage site. — Reuters

Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan, China

Quanzhou illustrates the city’s vibrancy as a maritime emporium during the Song and Yuan periods, and its interconnection with the Chinese hinterland.

The Great Spa Towns of Europe

This includes spa towns in Austria, Belgium, Czechia, France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Northern Ireland. They bear witness to the international European spa culture that developed from the early 18th century to the 1930s, which led to the emergence of grand international resorts.

Trans-Iranian Railway in Iran

The railway is notable for its scale and the engineering works it required to overcome steep routes and other difficulties.

Hima Cultural Area in Saudi Arabia

Hima Cultural Area contains a substantial collection of rock art images depicting hunting, fauna, flora and lifestyles in a cultural continuity of 7,000 years.

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