UNESCO pushes ahead with plans to classify the Great Barrier Reef as ‘endangered’

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Despite opposition in Australia, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is pushing ahead with plans to classify the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered natural site.

The draft decision is a proposal to place the site on the list of endangered world heritage, the committee’s director Mechtild Roessler said during the 44th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the Chinese city of Fuzhou.

The proposal would be on the agenda on Friday, she said.

The director and the president of the 44th session, China’s Vice Minister of Education Tian Xuejun, dismissed speculation that the move was related to political tensions between China and Australia.

“The recommendation is based on the reports and data provided to us by Australia,” said Tian Xuejun, who objected to “baseless allegations.”

UN World Heritage Committee is on track to classify the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. Credit: AP

As a result of climate change, the world’s largest reef is threatened by warm water and coral bleaching.

To prevent it from being red-listed, the Australian government had invited more than a dozen ambassadors on a snorkelling trip to the reef ahead of the meeting.

Nine of the 15 diplomats were from countries that would have voting rights at the committee’s meeting.

The Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia stretches over more than 344,000 square kilometres, making it larger than Italy.

It can be seen with the naked eye from space.

The Great Barrier Reef, Cape Melville, and Cape Flattery, of Queensland, Australia, as seen by Apollo 7 from space.
The Great Barrier Reef, Cape Melville, and Cape Flattery, of Queensland, Australia, as seen by Apollo 7 from space. Credit: Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

In the UNESCO draft, the World Heritage Committee has urged Australia to take action against climate change.

It also addressed the quality of the water around the reef, which has been a World Heritage Site since 1981.

The long-term outlook for the natural wonder has gone from “poor” to “very poor.”

In the UNESCO draft, the World Heritage Committee has urged Australia to take action against climate change. 
In the UNESCO draft, the World Heritage Committee has urged Australia to take action against climate change.  Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Climate change and its impact on World Heritage are an important topic at the meeting in Fuzhou.

The director of the World Heritage Committee stressed that the idea of the List of Endangered Sites is “a call to action” in which the entire world community should cooperate.

Ernesto Ottone, the UN agency’s department head in charge, also said, “That’s not about punishment, it’s how we preserve our heritage for future generation.”

The meeting was postponed a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic and is now being held via a mixture of online and in-person participation.

Decisions on applications for classification as new World Heritage sites are to be made next weekend. There are 1,121 World Heritage sites worldwide.

Currently, 53 World Heritage sites are classified as endangered.

Morrison SLAMS ‘appalling’ decision

Scott Morrison savaged the draft recommendation from UNESCO earlier in June.

The federal government suspects China has used its political clout on advisory bodies to engineer the outcome.

Various delegates to UNESCO from around the world have now co-signed an open letter denouncing the reef recommendation.

“The UNESCO process has been appalling,” the prime minister told Brisbane radio 4BC.

“We’ve been busy in talking to our friends and the list of countries is quite extraordinary.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears via video link.
The PM has slammed a draft decision recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. Credit: AAP

UNESCO insists its recommendation is based on science, not political influence.

But Morrison is furious about the apparent lack of transparency, due process and consultation.

“This process is not on. There’s a proper way to do these things,” he said.

“We invest, together with the Queensland government, some $3 billion on reef sciences, the best managed reef in the world.

“Sure, it’s got challenges like sensitive environments all around the world, but Australia does it better than anywhere else, so we will be making that case.”

The prime minister believes there has been a significant shift in UNESCO’s approach.

“We really do think this process has been absolutely appalling, quite different to when this issue was dealt with by UNESCO early on in our government back in 2014,” Morrison said.

“We worked through that process and got the right outcome, but this process is a bit of a try-on.”

Federal MP Warren Entsch with PM Scott Morrison
Great Barrier Reef envoy Warren Entsch took foreign diplomats diving to address concerns. Credit: AAP

The letter from ambassadors raised collective concerns over the process taken by UNESCO to develop its draft recommendation.

They acknowledged UNESCO and its advisory bodies had limited scope to analyse reports and visit world heritage sites during the coronavirus pandemic.

“However, we underscore the need for intergovernmental and international institutions to continue to apply due process in interactions with state parties,” the letter said.

“To that end, any recommendation from the World Heritage Centre and advisory bodies should be based on transparent, extensive and close consultation processes with state parties concerned.”

The ambassadors highlighted this was particularly important when the World Heritage Committee was being asked to consider significant decisions, such as an immediate in-danger listing of the Great Barrier Reef.

The letter was signed by ambassadors from Indonesia, Canada, the UK, France, Thailand, Hungary, Poland, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey and Spain.

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