With Great Barrier Reef on the Brink, UNESCO to Review Australia’s Climate Actions in 2022

Imogen Zethoven, advisor to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, discusses what UNESCO's recommendations mean for the Reef.

Earthjustice has been working with Australian conservation organizations since 2015 to urge UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to hold Australia accountable for its climate inaction and failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the coral bleaching and death occurring because of greenhouse gases causing ocean warming and acidification. 

In early 2021, in partnership with Environmental Justice Australia, Earthjustice released The Australian Climate Crisis and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Australian Marine Conservation Society released The Last Decade: The World Heritage Committee and the Great Barrier Reef.

This June, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) finally agreed. They made the unprecedented recommendation to the World Heritage Committee to add the Great Barrier Reef to its List of World Heritage in Danger due the threat of climate change. They also criticized the Australian government’s permitting of the Carmichael coal mine, called on Australia and all state parties to align their actions with a global pathway limiting warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels in order to save the Reef, and called for a reactive monitoring mission to the Reef within the next six months. Australia’s government angrily responded with baseless claims of an improper process and heavily lobbied the 21 members of the committee to ignore the recommendations made by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and IUCN.

In July, the committee declined to list the Reef as “in danger.” Nevertheless, the committee’s final decision requested Australia to invite the IUCN and World Heritage Centre to visit the Great Barrier Reef within the next six months to issue new recommendations regarding the threats of climate change. Its decision also called upon states 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 [outstanding universal value] of all World Heritage properties.”

Earthjustice Staff Scientist Jessica Lawrence spoke with Imogen Zethoven of Australian Marine Conservation Society about the latest developments. 

Imogen Zethoven of Australian Marine Conservation Society
John Henson

Why is the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage site, how is it threatened, and why should we care about its survival? 

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living marine organism in the world. It was inscribed as a World Heritage site 40 years ago and remains one of the world’s most iconic natural treasures. ‘The Reef’, as it is called in Australia, meets all four natural heritage criteria. These include its extraordinary natural beauty and globally significant biodiversity. The Reef contains vast mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, coral reefs, whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks and dugongs to name just a few species groups.

Australians love the Reef and many people around the world dream of visiting Australia to see it for themselves. Prior to COVID, the Reef generated over AU$6 billion a year to the Australian economy and supported 64,000 jobs. Seventy Indigenous Traditional Owner groups have looked after the Reef for thousands of years. One quarter of the world’s marine species depend on coral reefs for at least part of their life cycle. The Great Barrier Reef has enormous social, economic, cultural, and ecological value.

In 2019, an Australian government report concluded that the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef had deteriorated from poor to very poor. The report, which is based on the best scientific data, found that climate change is the Reef’s biggest threat. 

The Reef has already experienced five coral bleaching events, the most severe and widespread being in the last five years. In 2016 and 2017, about 50 percent of the corals died. While there has been some coral regeneration, the mix of species is shifting in favor of fast growing “weedy” species that are the most vulnerable to future coral bleaching. 

The Reef is also threatened by local pressures, in particular agricultural runoff from intensive sugarcane farming and extensive grazing of livestock in the adjacent catchment. Unsustainable commercial fishing and coastal development add to the pressures. 

What do scientists say needs to be done to save the Reef?

For years, scientists have been calling for urgent and drastic greenhouse gas emissions reductions to protect the future of the Reef. Recent science shows that Australia is on a path towards 3oC of global warming.

In July, leading marine scientists wrote an open letter to the Director General of UNESCO thanking UNESCO for its leadership in recognizing the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef and appreciating UNESCO’s recognition that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 °C is a critical threshold for the coral ecosystem. 

What was the significance of the climate recommendations of UNESCO and IUCN in their draft decision for the Reef?

The 2021 recommendations regarding the Great Barrier Reef were the first time UNESCO has recommended a World Heritage site be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger predominantly due to climate change. UNESCO referred to 1.5 °C as a critical threshold, the first time UNESCO has highlighted the long-term goal of the Paris Agreement in its recommendations for a specific World Heritage coral reef. It is also the first time UNESCO has called directly on a country to undertake corrective climate change actions.

How was the government’s response to the UNESCO and IUCN draft decision out of sync with the Australian public?

The Australian government responded angrily to UNESCO’s draft decision. It unleashed an intensive lobbying mission to overturn the ‘in danger’ decision and delay any further consideration of the Reef by the World Heritage Committee until mid-2023. 

This was completely out of sync with the views of most Australians. According to an AMCS commissioned national poll:

  • 71% think the Great Barrier Reef is in danger
  • 83% think it is important that the Reef is on the World Heritage List
  • 77% 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 NGOs, representing 4 million Australians, wrote to the director of the World Heritage Centre at UNESCO supporting the draft decision. In addition, more than 50 leading Australians added their voice to the call for the World Heritage Committee to put science before politics and protect the Reef. 

How is the Australian government failing to protect the Reef from climate change? 

The Australian government is recognized internationally as a climate laggard. It has failed to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 and failed to increase its ambition under the Paris Agreement, submitting the same weak Nationally Determined Contribution to climate mitigation in 2020 as it submitted in 2016. The government has actively supported the development of new coal mines (including Adani’s Carmichael mine) and has promoted a gas-led recovery to COVID. Australia is one of the world’s largest coal and gas exporters, coming third after Russia and Saudi Arabia. Australia is not on track to meet its weak 2030 emissions reduction target. A recent UN report found that Australia ranked last on climate action out of UN member countries. 

What would it mean for Australia to do its fair share to mitigate climate change?

Australia would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including from the land sector, by 66% by 2030 to be on track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. At the moment, Australia’s 2030 target is only 26-28% reductions. The Paris-compatible target means Australia’s coal-fired power stations would need to close by 2030, and gas plants in the early 2040s. No new coal or gas fields should be opened. Electric vehicle uptake would need to increase dramatically, and deforestation would need to end by 2030 at the latest. 

To achieve its fair share of climate mitigation, Australia, like all wealthy countries, must also increase support to low-income countries to transition to a zero carbon economy as well. 

What do you want to see happening next?

Despite not inscribing the Reef on the “in danger” list, the decision adopted by the World Heritage Committee has teeth. The committee has requested the government to invite a reactive monitoring mission to Australia to review the state of the Reef. Australia will need to strengthen its Reef 2050 Plan – the plan to protect the Reef – to address climate change at all possible levels. The government is required to report to UNESCO by Feb. 1 next year, and the committee will again review Australia’s management of the Reef in mid-2022. Australia was unsuccessful in kicking the can down the road to 2023. The next 12 months, which include a federal election, are critically important to keep up the pressure on the government to do its utmost to protect the Reef—and the rest of the planet–from the existential threat of climate change. 

Jessica Lawrence is a conservation biologist who has worked with Earthjustice since 2008 researching and presenting the most recent and compelling science for our international climate and energy cases. She also supports environmental coalitions advocating for better protection for UNESCO World Heritage sites including Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/USA), Papahānaumokuākea (USA), Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Lamu Old Town (Kenya), and the Sundarbans (Bangladesh).

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.