Australia warns Unesco over placing barrier reef on ‘in danger’ list

Australia has warned that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) risks denting its own credibility if it follows through with a proposal to put the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list.

Warren Entsch, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef envoy, said he hoped the UN World Heritage Committee would reverse a draft decision made last month following a frenetic lobbying campaign by Canberra ahead of a vote scheduled for Friday.

UN officials say the move is intended to prompt action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s east coast and has been damaged by climate change and coastal development.

But the debate over its Unesco status has become a frontline in the battle between Australia’s conservative government, a laggard on climate policies which has yet to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and environmental campaigners.

It has also raised concerns in Canberra about Beijing’s influence on international bodies, as the committee is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education.

Canberra has spared no efforts in trying to influence the 21-country committee. Last week it dispatched its environment minister on a lobbying tour of Europe.

Entsch even invited foreign ambassadors — including nine from countries with seats on the committee — on a snorkelling trip to educate them on the health of the reef. 

“We showed the ambassadors areas that were impacted by coral bleaching and they were amazed at the regrowth and the diversity of the coral,” he said.

“Unesco plays an important role and if it wants to maintain credibility it needs to follow its own protocols.”

Australia appears to have won the support of 12 countries for an amendment that would delay an “in danger listing” to at least 2023. But this will depend on the final vote.

Tian Xuejun, the Chinese official who also heads Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, has been accused by Australia of targeting the country © Song Weiwei/Xinhua via AP

But scientists and environmental groups warn that Canberra’s aggressive lobbying risks further politicising the world heritage protection system. They add that trying to shift the focus to China, with leaks to Australian media suggesting Tian may have influenced the committee to target Canberra, is part of a diplomatic spat between the countries and is a distraction.

“The ‘in danger’ listing has got nothing to do with China,” says Charlie Veron, a marine scientist who has catalogued and named about a fifth of the world’s coral species.

“This is about the government’s reluctance to take responsibility for anything to do with climate change, whether it’s the plight of the Great Barrier Reef or the recent bushfires.”

Tian said this week the draft decision was based on scientific data presented to the committee by Australian authorities.

This includes a 2019 report by the Australian government agency that manages the reef, which concluded it had a very poor outlook following multiple coral bleaching events linked to rising water temperatures.

Tian told journalists on Sunday that Australia should attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and fulfil the duty of world heritage protection instead of making “groundless accusations” against other states.

Canberra argues that adding the reef to the list fails to recognise its efforts in restoring coral health and risks damaging the international reputation of a natural wonder. The reef accounts for 64,000 jobs and contributes A$6bn ($4.4bn) to the Australian economy, according to a recent report.

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“The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. Billions upon billions of dollars continue to be spent on it and there has been a lot of work from different stakeholders,” said Entsch.

He added that it was unfortunate Unesco had prioritised Australia’s climate policies when he would like to see his own government move faster on committing to net zero by 2050.

“My concern is that ‘in danger’ listing would suggest all the efforts made so far to protect the reef are worth absolutely nothing and stakeholders would say, ‘Why do we bother?’” he said.

Most scientists and environmental campaigners disagree and say the Australian position reeks of hypocrisy.

“A strongly scientific-driven process is being manipulated and presented as a political process when it is clearly not,” said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF, the conservation group.

“There is a real irony in the Australian government making an accusation that the committee was ‘politically motivated’ and then engaging in a frenzy of political lobbying over the past three weeks.”

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