Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be listed as an ‘in danger’ world heritage site, says UN panel

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be added to the list of World Heritage Sites that are ‘in danger’, a UN-backed panel has said, citing a series of bleaching events in recent years.

Scientists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) took part in a 10-day mission to the coral reef in March and, in a new report released on Monday, concluded that the action to save the site must be undertaken with the “maximum urgency”.

Scientists have pointed out that the world’s largest barrier reef is under threat due to the climate crisis.

Frequent bleaching events, including four in the past seven years, are threatening the coral ecosystem, which was added to the World Heritage List in 1981.

The reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures, causing corals to excrete the colored algae that live in their tissue and turn white. Corals can survive bleaching events, but they affect their growth and reproduction.

“The mission team concludes that the property faces serious threats that could have deleterious effects on its intrinsic characteristics, and thus meets the criteria for inscription on the World Heritage in Danger List,” the report said. Unesco, adding: “The resilience of the [reef] recovering from the impacts of climate change is fundamentally compromised.”

The report suggests that the Australian government and Queensland regional authorities should adopt more ambitious emissions reduction targets, in line with the global effort to limit future warming to 1.5°C.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, however, argued on Tuesday that the report had unfairly cast a spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.

Canberra had previously lobbied against moving the barrier reef – a major tourist attraction that contributes nearly A$6.4bn (£3.6bn) to Australia’s economy – to the endangered list. Last year, Australia sidestepped an ‘endangered’ coral reef list after pressure from Scott Morrison’s government led UNESCO to defer a decision until 2022.

“We will make it clear to UNESCO that there is no need to isolate the Great Barrier Reef like this,” Ms Plibersek told reporters. “If the Great Barrier Reef is in danger, then every barrier reef in the world is in danger. If this World Heritage site is in danger, then most of the World Heritage sites around the world are in danger from climate change,” she said.

“The reason Unesco has identified a place as at risk in the past is because they wanted to see more government investment, or more government action, and since the change of government, both have happened.”

Ms Plibersek said her government had also pledged A$1.2bn (£670m) to look after the reef and canceled the previous government’s plans to build two dams in Queensland that could have damaged it.

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