Australia sends reef health update to UNESCO

The prospect of an in-danger listing for the Great Barrier Reef will be on the cards as long as climate change remains a threat, a conservation group says.

Australia has spent years trying to prevent the reef from being listed as a World Heritage site in danger and won a temporary reprieve in 2023.

But it was ordered to provide a progress report on protection measures by February.

That’s now been sent to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

They will assess Australia’s efforts and make recommendations to the World Heritage Committee when it revisits the in-danger listing at a meeting in July.

The report makes much of Queensland’s recent decision to ratchet up its emissions reduction target to 75 per cent by 2035.

It also promises a “strong” new 2035 target from the federal government in the not-too-distant future, on the way to net zero emissions by 2050, and points to a $40 billion investment in clean energy.

Otherwise, it’s a long compilation of spending commitments and programs that are said to be addressing key concerns about poor water quality, runoff volumes, land clearing in reef catchments, and fishing impacts.

Australia is hoping to extend the time until the next check-in.

“Given the substantial information within this report, in addition to the extensive engagement over previous years, Australia considers it appropriate to provide a state of conservation report in 2026, prior to any further consideration of adding the reef (to the in danger list),” the report says.

More than a decade has passed since the World Heritage Committee first warned the reef could be inscribed and the primary threat of climate change has only escalated since then.

“Unless we seriously lift ambition to reduce greenhouse emissions, the Australian government will be back before the World Heritage Committee every year,” WWF-Australia’s head of oceans Richard Leck said.

He said major conservation breakthroughs in recent years – including the phase out of commercial gill net fishing – resulted from UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee recommendations.

“It’s vitally important for the future protection of the reef that this process continues,” he said.

“There’s still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done, and the value in this process of requiring the Australian government to demonstrate continual progress is essential.”

In a joint statement, federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, her Queensland counterpart Leanne Linard, and Australia’s special envoy for the reef Nita Green said billions were being spent on reef health.

They said the Great Barrier Reef was one of the best-managed World Heritage properties, and Australia would continue to engage constructively with UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee.

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