Opinion: UNESCO must declare the Great Barrier Reef endangered

Cairns Townsville bleaching 2017 3 credit Ed Roberts

Aerial footage documenting bleaching between the Cairns and Townsville reefs. Photo credit: Ed Roberts.

By Anders Lorenzen

One of the great natural wonders of the world, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO site, is in dire trouble. It is celebrated by millions of tourists each year and by high profile personalities like naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough

Recent underwater and aerial surveys conducted by the ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies have confirmed a second year of devastating coral reef bleaching. The findings are so severe that scientists and commentators have declared the Great Barrier Reef to be on life support. The mass bleaching events have impacted on a stretch of 1,500 km. Of course, not all bleached coral reef will die. But the frequency of these events makes it a lot harder for them to survive, as it takes around ten years for a bleached reef to recover.



Graphic by the ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.


It is of course not new news that the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. Warming oceans as a result of global climate change and localised coal mining are both to blame (Queensland is building the world’s largest coal mine and port). The danger to the reef caused UNESCO to consider listing the Great Barrier Reef as in danger already back in 2014. But mass lobbying by the Australian government prevented them from doing so. Following the bleaching event last year, it was reported that UNESCO was again considering listing it as being in danger. But with a second devastating coral bleaching event this year, it is surely time for UNESCO to not just consider this listing, but to urgently move towards to do so. At the same time, they must demand clear guarantees from the Australian government that it will do everything in its power to protect the reef.

Global awareness about the sorry state of affairs that the reef finds itself in is crucial. Perhaps only when that kind of international pressure exists, the Turnbull government will take the risk to the Great Barrier Reef seriously. If UNESCO wants to retain its credibility as an organisation which takes its role to conserve and protect the environment seriously, then there is no other way than to list the reef as being endangered. The UN body has a duty to act, not tomorrow but now!

Furthermore, UNESCO must make it clear what action is needed from the Australian government to be able to remove the endangered status. First, the Australian government must drop its plan for the Adani coal mine project as well as the Abbot Point coal port.  Both projects have been controversial, and they are impacting the reef. Secondly, the government must form a clear and ambitious climate change plan and put a clean energy strategy at the heart of government policies, rather than backing dirty and polluting coal which is endangering the reef.

Failure to do so will have huge consequences. And it is not only the environment that will pay the costly price but also the economy. The Great Barrier Reef is contributing a tremendous amount to the tourism industry, with tourists around the world flocking to experience it. If we don’t put a priority on saving it, all that could be lost. And UNESCO has a mandate and a responsibility to the Australian people and the World to ensure that this happens.

Categories: oceans, opinion

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