The Great Barrier Reef is not on the ‘in danger’ list. Why, and what happens next?

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jumbo Aerial Photography/AP</span>
Photograph: Jumbo Aerial Photography/AP

There are tens of billions of corals on the Great Barrier Reef that knit together to form a giant mass that is most certainly, definitely, no doubt about it, in danger.

Nobody at the world heritage committee late on Friday night thought otherwise.

And yet, the 21-country committee was not willing to put the reef on its “in danger” list after a fierce global lobbying effort by Australia.

So what on earth is going on here? And what does this most blinding of contradictions mean for Australia as the custodian of the world’s biggest coral reef system?

The effects of fossil-fuel driven global heating did not suddenly disappear. The record heat that drove corals across the reef’s 2,300 kilometres to bleach white in 2016, 2017 and 2020 still happened.

And behind the outrage at the committee’s apparent cowardice to admit what’s plain to everyone else, the Morrison government now has just six months to get its act together or face the same threat of the “in danger” label again in a year’s time.

Related: World Heritage Committee agrees not to place Great Barrier Reef on ‘in danger’ list

How did this start?

The UN’s science and culture agency, Unesco, makes recommendations to the world heritage committee, and most of the time these “draft decisions” are uncontroversial.

After reviewing the Australian government’s own reports on the reef’s degradation and the existential threat that climate change poses, Unesco was clear.

Together with their advisers at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Unesco had also reviewed Australia’s submissions about their central policy – the Reef 2050 plan – and its reports about targets to improve water quality across the reef.

The IUCN’s Tim Badman and Unesco’s Dr Fanny Douvere both told Friday’s meeting the reef was facing “ascertained danger” and the reef “unambiguously” met the criteria for the committee’s danger list.

But the committee can decide whatever it likes. And so it did.

What happened at the meeting?

During the hour-long debate late Friday, Australia time, there was no disagreement with Unesco’s assessment that urgent action on climate change by all the 193 countries that have signed the world heritage convention was “urgently required”.

But never before had they been asked to put a site on the “in danger” list mainly because of climate impacts. A precedent would be set.

Australia had persuaded enough members of the committee that it was doing a good job in managing the reef, that the UN should have sent a monitoring mission first, and that maybe this wasn’t the forum to pressure a country to take more ambitious steps on climate change.

Hearing some of the countries parroting Australia’s talking points, that it was taking strong action on climate change, should have been contrasted with the multiple international analyses that the country’s record is poor.

Australia’s record as a leading producer and exporter of coal and gas wasn’t raised as a counter either.

So was there any point to it all? The short answer is, yes.

Related: Whether or not the Great Barrier Reef is listed as ‘in danger’ won’t alter the fact it is at risk from climate change

A passage that said Australia’s management of the reef would need to include “accelerated action at all possible levels to address the threat from climate change” was agreed.

The committee ratified paragraphs saying the government’s revision to a reef 2050 policy “addresses the threat posed to the property by climate change” and should do more to tackle pollution running off farms and grazing properties.

Australia had asked for a deadline of December 2022 for it to report back to the world heritage centre in Paris the results of a UN reef monitoring mission, where it would try and convince the advisers its policies were enough to stop the deterioration of the reef. This would mean the world heritage committee wouldn’t make a decision on the reef until 2023.

But Norway, backed by China, argued Australia’s government had already said its new reef 2050 plan was close to being signed off.

Why did the Morrison government need so much time, Norway asked, pointing to a letter earlier in the week from the Queensland government which had argued the same.

The committee agreed.

Now, Australia has just six months to host the UN mission, finalise its reef policy, and then report back to Unesco.

Next June or July, the reef will come up again before the world heritage committee meeting to be hosted in Kazan, Russia.

So what now?

Like reefs everywhere, the intensity and frequency of bleaching events caused by rising ocean temperatures has come about thanks to more than a hundred years of heavy fossil fuel use.

Is there any scenario under which that could be turned around in six months?

The committee’s decision, while widely derided as ignoring the obvious, does leave the threat of an “in danger” listing hanging over Australia.

As the Queensland premier Annastacia Palasczuk said on Saturday, she did not want to see the reef on a danger list, but “the eyes of the world are watching”.

One expert at James Cook University, Prof Tiffany Morrison, who has researched the history of world heritage “in danger” declarations, says the threat further erodes any social licence that state and federal governments might have to approve any more fossil fuel projects.

For example, federal environment minister Sussan Ley is a month overdue on a decision to approve or reject a proposed new coalmine from mining magnate Clive Palmer that would be just 10km from the reef’s waters.

Will Australia be able to continue to approve new coal and gas developments and expect – or hope – that Unesco and the 21-country committee (that will have rotated by next year with 12 replacement members) doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care?

The international attention that Unesco’s call, and Australia’s lobbying, has brought to the reef makes it even harder for Australia to greenlight more fossil fuel projects, or risk pushing the reef further to the brink of endangerment – whether the label is attached or not.

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