A view of the surface of a 500m-tall coral reef discovered by Australian scientists, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in this still image taken from video taken on October 25 2020 provided on social media. Picture: SCHMIDT OCEAN INSTITUTE VIA REUTERS
A view of the surface of a 500m-tall coral reef discovered by Australian scientists, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in this still image taken from video taken on October 25 2020 provided on social media. Picture: SCHMIDT OCEAN INSTITUTE VIA REUTERS

Australia succeeded in efforts to prevent the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as endangered by a UN organisation after a diplomacy blitz.

Members of the Unesco committee on Friday voted against proposals to add the landmark to a list of at-risk World Heritage Sites, a move that would have triggered demands for additional conservation work.

“Without a site visit, no desired state of conservation, no corrective measure, and the absence of an agreed climate policy, an immediate endangered-listing will only harm the reef, not protect it,” Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley told the committee.

Australia’s pro-fossil fuel government has rejected demands for tougher action on reef preservation, insisting it is already making improvements through a A$3bn investment programme. The government successfully challenged a previous effort in 2015 to have the reef designated as endangered.

The reef, which stretches across an area about the size of Japan, is the Earth’s largest living structure and home to more than 600 types of corals and 1,600 species of fish.

Unesco has pressed for additional action after issuing repeated warnings about the worsening condition of the reef. The site has suffered from mass coral bleaching caused by higher sea temperatures, according to a UN report published last month. The body downgraded the long-term outlook for the site from “poor” to “very poor”.

Ley travelled overseas this month for a round of meetings with committee members, arguing that they should vote against the endangered label. Ambassadors from more than a dozen nations, including Japan and Russia, were invited to swim at the reef to show that the environmental risks were overstated.

“This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history,” said David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. “Climate change is the number one threat to the Great Barrier Reef,” he said, “and the Australian government has no credible plan for cutting emissions, no climate target and continues to promote and subsidise the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas.”

Countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Spain voted against the decision to add the Great Barrier Reef to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger. They argued that more time is needed to monitor the site, and that the effects of climate change are being felt across coral reefs all over the planet, not just Australia’s. 

Australia “is strongly committed to the protection of the site and it’s been taking important action towards the long-term sustainability of the site,” said Brazil’s Unesco ambassador Santiago Irazabal. “Will this be enough to save the Great Barrier Reef? We don’t know, But we can give the Australian government a vote of confidence.” 

Environmental organisations such as WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) expressed their concern about the reef’s state of conservation. While the site faces global threats such as climate change, progress towards achieving some of the targets Australia outlined in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan has also been slow and hasn’t stopped deterioration, according to the latest assessment by the IUCN. 

“The climate crisis threatening the reef cannot be addressed by Australia alone, but the dangerous thing is a collective inaction by all other states,” Eva Hauge, senior adviser to the Norwegian Environment Agency, told the Unesco committee on Friday. The endangered listing “is not a punishment, it’s how we mobilise action and preserve heritage for future generations”.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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