UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) has deferred its decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ by a year but that doesn’t mean the Federal Government is off the hook according to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
The Society says the Australian Government has six months to report back to UNESCO on its climate actions. An examination of documents on the WHC website reveal that, while commending the Federal and Queensland Governments for committing record funds and effort to conserving the Reef, the critical problems of climate change and water quality need to be addressed by February or the WHC will add the property to its World Heritage In Danger list.
Here’s the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s summary of the situation followed by extracts from the WHC website where its decisions in relation to the Great Barrier Reef are published in full.
“The Morrison Government has until 1 February 2022 to report back to UNESCO about progress by both the Australian and Queensland governments to address climate change and water quality,” the latest edition of the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s newsletter says.
“UNESCO will send a Reactive Monitoring Mission to Australia to help shape Australia’s actions to protect the Reef,” it says.
“UNESCO may still recommend to the World Heritage Committee that the Reef be listed ‘in Danger at the next meeting in 12 months’ time,” it says.
According to the Society, the science is clear, our Reef is in danger from global warming and water pollution.
It also argues, based on its own research, that Australians want the government to take strong action to ensure its survival for future generations.
77% of Australians support the World Heritage Committee putting the Great Barrier Reef on the ‘In Danger’ List to prompt the Australian government to improve its management of the Reef.
Australia’s leading environmental non-government organisations, representing 4 million Australians, are demanding climate action to protect our global icon.
Five world renowned scientists have praised UNESCO’s leadership in recognising the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef.
Leading Australian voices from the world of politics, science, business, sport and the arts are standing together for the future of Australia’s much loved icon, the Great Barrier Reef.
World famous scientists, actors and former presidents have added their names to this growing chorus of concerned citizens who are calling on the World Heritage Committee to ensure the Australian government takes the actions required to protect our Great Barrier Reef.
“As custodians of our Reef, the Australian government must take responsibility and reduce emissions to limit global warming to 1.5C. UNESCO acknowledges that all countries must step up on climate change, and Australia has responsibilities for climate and local water pollution issues. How can we expect the world to act on climate change with the scale and urgency required, if Australia is not prepared to do its fair share?
“Australia’s current climate target is consistent with a 2.5-3.0 C rise in global average temperature – a level that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs. The Australian government must stop using taxpayer money on fossil fuel projects and instead invest in clean renewable energy. The rest of the world identifies this opportunity, we must not get left behind.
“Although the Australian and Queensland Governments have made efforts to address local threats, more investment and faster progress needs to be made to meet the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 Plan.”
So what has the UNESCO World Heritage Committee said about the Reef’s status to date at its 2021 meeting?
This is how the World Heritage Committee describes the Great Barrier Reef – “a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1500 species of fish and 4000 types of mollusc. It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (sea cow) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction.
According to the UNESCO WHC website, the factors having an impact on the Reef in 2021 include: changes to oceanic waters; ground water pollution; marine transport infrastructure; non-renewable energy facilities; other climate change impacts; storms; surface water pollution; temperature change. The potential grounding of ships is listed as another threat.
Factors identified by the Committee in previous reports included: changes to oceanic waters; ground water pollution; marine transport infrastructure (Coastal development, including development of ports, shipping lane impacts, grounding of ships); non-renewable energy facilities (Liquefied Natural Gas facilities); marine transport infrastructure (ports); other climate change impacts; storms; surface water pollution; and temperature change.
The last time the WHC sent a Reactive Mission to the property was in 2012
On 18 December 2018, the State Party (the Australian Government) submitted a letter regarding the mid-term review of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) and its results, along with information that a new Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 (WQIP) had been released.
On 18 July 2019, the State Party submitted a position statement on climate change from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). On 6 August 2019, the World Heritage Centre sent a letter to the State Party raising concerns about the approval of the Carmichael Coal Mine, to which the State Party responded on 6 September 2019, noting that the project’s approval was subject to over 180 regulatory conditions and that compliance with these conditions would be monitored.
On 30 August 2019, the State Party submitted the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019 (2019 GBR Outlook Report) and the Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018.
On 29 November 2019, the State Party submitted a state of conservation report, available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154/documents/.
According to that report, a number of factors had negatively affected the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Reef since 2015, including mass coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.
“The 2019 GBR Outlook Report concluded that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property had deteriorated from poor to very poor and that climate change remained the most serious threat for the property.
“Other key threats were land-based run-off, coastal development and some direct human uses. It concluded that accelerated action to mitigate climate change and improve water quality was essential to turn the outlook around. The report also concluded that the OUV of the property remained intact; however, components underpinning it had deteriorated since the inscription.
“It noted a 30% loss of shallow-water coral cover following the 2016 bleaching event and the combined footprint of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching event extending over two thirds of the property.
“Deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the OUV of the property had been ‘more rapid and widespread than was evident in the period 2009 to 2014’.
“It is acknowledged that climate change requires effective global action under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015), with the 1.5 °C target widely recognized as a critical threshold for the property.
“A mid-term review of the Reef 2050 Plan was undertaken in 2017, in light of the … bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. The updated Reef 2050 Plan, published in July 2018, recognizes the impacts of climate change on the property and the importance of global action for climate change mitigation.”
According to the WHC website, the next full review of the Plan was due to be completed in 2020.
“The Reef 2050 Plan Insights Report, an independent assessment, which considered whether the Reef 2050 Plan was effective in achieving its vision, concluded that the Plan “has provided a very sound framework for improving the effective management of the Reef’s values”.
“An independent assessment of management effectiveness, prepared to inform the 2019 GBR Outlook Report, noted a number of improvements resulting from the Reef 2050 Plan.
“An assessment of progress towards achieving the targets of the Reef 2050 Plan notes that while some of them are being met, significant improvements will be required to meet other targets, including those for biodiversity and water quality.
“The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018 concluded that, despite some advancement, progress towards achieving the 2025 targets has been very slow, with property-wide results for sediment reduction and dissolved inorganic nitrogen assessed as very poor and results for most of land management targets as poor or very poor.
“New legislation was approved by the Queensland Government in September 2019 to strengthen the regulatory framework for reducing nutrient and sediment releases. Changes were also introduced to the Queensland’s vegetation management laws in 2018 to prevent clearing of remnant vegetation in reef catchments.
“Additional funding commitments were made since the release of the Reef 2050 Plan Investment Framework in 2016. Total state and federal investment for the Reef 2050 Plan implementation between 2014-2024 has increased from an estimated USD 1,43 billion in 2015 to an estimated USD 1,94 billion in 2020.
“Additional actions have also been undertaken to build the resilience of the property, including through the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Programmes.
“On 17 April 2020, the State Party submitted additional preliminary information regarding the coral bleaching events that took place in spring 2020.
“The World Heritage Centre and IUCN also received letters and third-party information about the Reef 2050 Plan progress and the effects of climate change on the property.”
According to the WHC the Federal Government submitted additional information on 1 February providing an update on the state of conservation of the Reef.
“The geographic footprint of the 2020 bleaching event was the largest to date; however, there was significant variability in the severity of bleaching.
“The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2019 … demonstrates further progress towards some targets, particularly the one on the dissolved inorganic nitrogen.”
The following analysis and conclusions have been made about the Great Barrier Reef in 2021.
“Since the inception of the Reef 2050 Plan in 2015, the State Party has shown strong commitment to its implementation, including through ensuring unprecedented levels of financial support and the mobilization of inter-institutional collaboration. These efforts should be commended.
“However, despite these efforts, the OUV of the property has continued to decline.
“The long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor.
“The deterioration has been more rapid and widespread than was evident during the period 2009-2014. The property has also suffered significantly from coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and most recently in 2020, as a result of global warming.
“In its Decision 39 COM 7B.7 (2015), the World Heritage Committee decided to review the state of conservation of the property at its 44th session, linked to the findings of the anticipated 2019 GBR Outlook Report. In the five years following this Decision, both the current condition and the long-term outlook for the property have deteriorated.
“Therefore, there is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger, according to Paragraph 180 a) of the Operational Guidelines.
“In its Decision 41 COM 7B.24 (2017), the World Heritage Committee encouraged the State Party to accelerate efforts toward meeting the intermediate and long-term targets of the Reef 2050 Plan, in particular those related to water quality. As confirmed in the State Party’s report and previous assessments, improving water quality is central to turning around the further deterioration of the property. The results of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Reef Water Quality Report Cards, however, confirm that despite some commendable achievements, particularly on the dissolved inorganic nitrogen (as demonstrated by the 2019 Report Card), and although the Reef 2050 Plan has provided a coherent framework to improve the management of the property, progress towards achieving the targets has been very slow in many key areas.
“Progress has been insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan. The Plan requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures. The widespread effects of the consecutive coral bleaching events further add to the significant concerns regarding the future of the property.
“While the mid-term review of the Reef 2050 Plan has already outlined some considerations concerning climate change, it is crucial that its final form fully incorporate the conclusions of the 2019 GBR Outlook report, provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster. It is further essential that the final plan incorporate the necessary measures to fully implement the Plan’s overall mission to secure the sustainable conservation of the property for future generations.
“Based on the above, and noting, in particular, that both the current condition and the long-term outlook of the property have deteriorated, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the property is facing ascertained danger according to Paragraph 180 a) of the Operational Guidelines and hence recommend that the Committee inscribe the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
“It is further recommended that the Committee request the State Party to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission to collaboratively develop a set of corrective measures and a Desired state of conservation for the removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger (DSOCR). It is recommended that the corrective measures focus on ensuring that the Reef 2050 Plan’s policy commitments, targets and implementation adequately address the threat of climate change and water quality and take into account the fact that the State Party on its own cannot address the threats of climate change.
“It is further recommended that the Committee call with the utmost urgency upon all States Parties and the international community to implement the most ambitious actions to address climate change to meet their obligations to the World Heritage Convention, as defined under Article 6 of the Convention and fulfil their responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef.”
The Federal Government responded to all the above by lobbying for the WHC not to list the Great Barrier Reef as In Danger. In response, the WHC made the following draft decision, as published in full on its website.
The WHC “Commends the State Party for the strong and continued efforts to create conditions for the implementation of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan), including through unprecedented financial commitments;
“Notes with the utmost concern and regret the conclusions of the 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report (2019 GBR Outlook Report) that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor, that the deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property has been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident, and that the property has suffered significantly from mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020.”
The draft decision also noted “with the utmost concern that despite many positive achievements, progress has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan, in particular the water quality and land management targets, as evidenced by the conclusions of the 2017-2018 and 2019 Reef Quality Report Cards.
“Noting the conclusion of the 2019 GBR Outlook Report that climate change remains the most serious threat to the property, and recognizing that action by the international community and all States Parties to the Convention is urgently required to address threats from climate change, considers that actions to build resilience of the property and address other factors remain of utmost importance.
“Also considers that the property is facing ascertained danger, according to Paragraph 180 a) of the Operational Guidelines;
“Decides to inscribe the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) on the List of World Heritage in Danger;
“Urges the State Party to ensure that the revised Reef 2050 Plan, expected to be finalized in 2021, fully incorporates the conclusions of the 2019 GBR Outlook Report that accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change, in accordance with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015), and to urgently create opportunities for recovery of the property, in particular with regard to water quality.
“Requests the State Party to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission to develop a set of corrective measures and a Desired state of conservation for the removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger (DSOCR), centred around ensuring that the revised Reef 2050 Plan addresses the threat posed to the property by climate change and determines a pathway for accelerated actions in other areas affecting the conservation of the property.
“Also recalling Decision 41 COM 7 in which the Committee “reiterate[d] the importance of States Parties undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and by pursuing efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”, strongly invites all States Parties to undertake actions to address Climate Change under the Paris Agreement consistent with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, that are fully consistent with their obligations within the World Heritage Convention to protect the OUV of all World Heritage properties;
“Further requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2022, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 45th session in 2022.”