UN Panel Recommendation on Great Barrier Reef

A UN panel recommended the listing of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as a world heritage site that is “in danger”.

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem, having over 2,900 individual reefs, 900 islands and an area covering some 344,400 square kilometres. It is situated off the coast of Australia’s Queensland.

It is one of the world’s largest biodiversity hotspots and largest carbon sinks. It is supporting some 64,000 jobs and provides a large amount of revenue for the Australian economy.

Why is the Great Barrier Reef in danger?

The Great Barrier Reef is significantly affected by the climate crisis. It is adversely impacted by frequent bleaching events, including the four that occurred over the last 7 years and the first during this year’s La Nina phenomenon, which is typically the time when temperature becomes cooler. Coral bleaching occurs when the water temperature increases, causing the corals to expel the colourful algae living in their tissues and turn white.

While corals can survive a bleaching events, their growth becomes stunted and their reproduction is affected. Frequent bleaching has made many reefs sterile. Their resilience has been affected because of climate change and the degraded water quality.

What does the recently released IUCN-WHC report say about the Great Barrier Reef?

A joint report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) found that the management of the Great Barrier Reef currently lacks clear climate change goals. The existing plans to conserve the ecosystem has fallen short, especially in relation to the management of water quality and fishing activities. Inshore land-based activities, which are outside the protected area, are the main contributors to degradation of water quality. Pollution from agricultural activities and construction activities as well as the proposed developments around the Queensland coast are threatening to worsen the situation further.

In view of these threats, the report provided several recommendations:

  1. Add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
  2. Monitor and make changes to the current farming practices
  3. Increase commitment to minimise greenhouse gas emissions
  4. Address land erosion on the coast
  5. Adapt sustainable fishing practices

About the List of World Heritage in Danger

The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the global community about the conditions that threaten the core characteristics of the property included in the World Heritage List and encourage corrective actions against such conditions.

Under the 1972 World Heritage Convention, inscribing a site on this list enables the World Heritage Centre (WHC) to provide immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to protect the endangered property and simultaneously gather global support and attention to the site.

Why is Australia opposing the recommendation to include GBR in List of World Heritage in Danger?

While some countries welcome additional aid to threatened World Heritage Sites, many oppose the move as it is seen as an embarrassment for the country. Including the GBR in the List of World Heritage in Danger would invite more scrutiny for the site, resulting in the clashes between conservation interests and economic interests. Its inclusion would have tangible effect on developmental projects are politically important for the Australian government.

There is also the high economic cost of the recommendations to protect the GBR. For instance, the UN panel’s recommendation to phase out “gill net fishing” that indiscriminately harm marine life would mean making large-scale investments to compensate fisheries that depend on this method.

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