A report by lawyers at Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia, launched this week in Paris, outlines the international legal responsibilities of nations with World Heritage-listed coral reefs to take action to protect those reefs from the devastating effects of climate change.
The legal report, “World Heritage and Climate Change: The Legal Responsibility of States to Reduce Their Contributions to Climate Change – A Great Barrier Reef Case Study” provides a framework within which the World Heritage Committee can call those nations to action before it is too late to save these ecosystems, which are at the heart of some of the world’s most iconic natural heritage.
Grounded in the obligations of nations under the World Heritage Convention, as well as globally accepted principles of responsibility for environmental harm, the report concludes that all nations with World Heritage-listed corals must minimize non-climate reef threats such as pollution and overfishing. Nations with significant carbon dioxide emissions and substantial economic and technical capacity to act have an additional obligation to take serious and effective action to reduce their contributions to climate change, including by not authorizing the construction of new fossil-fuel infrastructure.
The legal team is in Paris to launch their legal analysis, and to urge World Heritage Committee delegates and advisers to support a call to states with World Heritage-listed coral reefs to fulfil their responsibility to protect reefs threatened by climate change.
Earthjustice lawyer and report author Noni Austin said, “In 2017, the World Heritage Committee has an opportunity and a responsibility to protect World Heritage-listed coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, from the devastating effects of climate change. This report provides a framework for the Committee’s assessment of the international legal obligations of countries with World Heritage-listed coral reefs.
“Corals around the world are bleaching and dying because of ocean warming and acidification caused by out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions. The plight of these corals is growing more dire every year. Without strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many may not survive beyond 2050.
“In the past few years, the effect of climate change on corals has been made frighteningly evident. Elevated ocean temperatures have triggered wide-scale coral bleaching events around the world, from the United States’ Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, to France’s Lagoons of New Caledonia, the Seychelles’ Aldabra Atoll, and Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area. On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a staggering 22 percent of corals died in 2016—the worst coral die-off in recorded history. On some reefs in the north, almost all the coral died. This is an international tragedy for our shared World Heritage.
“Our legal analysis finds that, under the World Heritage Convention, states with World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are also responsible for substantial historical or current greenhouse gas emissions and with greater financial and technical capacity need to do their fair share to reduce their own emissions, and must ensure they do not authorize or facilitate the development of new sources of emissions or new fossil-fuel extraction infrastructure.”
Ariane Wilkinson, lawyer at not-for-profit law firm Environmental Justice Australia, said: “Australia is custodian of the Great Barrier Reef and has primary responsibility under the World Heritage Convention to protect and conserve the Reef. Our analysis shows that Australia is failing to fulfill its obligation under the World Heritage Convention to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of climate change.
“In light of Australia’s resources, capacity to act, and very high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, Australia must take two urgent steps to protect the Reef and meet its obligations under the World Heritage Convention: It must take serious and effective action to reduce its current greenhouse gas emissions, and cease the construction of new fossil-fuel extraction infrastructure that will lock in decades of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Australia is failing miserably on both counts. Instead of fulfilling its obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef from future devastating coral bleaching events, Australia is failing to do its fair share to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and is unlikely to meet its inadequate commitments under the Paris Agreement.
“Further, Australia is permitting the development of massive new coal mines that will contribute substantially to climate change and to the further deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef. This is nothing short of negligent, given its obligations to protect our priceless World Heritage.”