A UN-backed mission to the Great Barrier Reef has concluded that the world’s largest coral reef system should be placed on a list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
The long-awaited report on the 10-day mission which took place in March said climate change presented a “serious challenge” to the values which saw the reef listed as a world wonder in 1981.
Progress in reducing pollution of reef waters from agriculture and grazing was too slow and more investment was needed to meet water quality targets, according to the mission report.
The report’s recommendation to place the reef on a list of ‘endangered’ World Heritage sites will be considered alongside responses from the Queensland and Federal Governments before Unesco makes a formal recommendation to the World Heritage Committee. before its next meeting.
The reef mission was carried out at the request of former federal environment minister Sussan Ley after the former government successfully lobbied against a 2021 Unesco recommendation that the reef should be placed on the endangered list.
Two experts – one from Unesco and the other from the International Union for Conservation of Nature – met with Queensland government, scientists and stakeholders two months before the Morrison government was defeated.
The final mission report, released Monday afternoon in Paris after a six-month delay, makes 10 priority recommendations that need to be addressed “urgently”.
Implementing the recommendations could “significantly improve [Australia’s] ability to secure and advance the conservation of the property” and retain its “outstanding universal value” for future generations, the report states.
The centerpiece of the government’s Reef 2050 plan was to be enhanced before the end of this year to include “clear government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with efforts required to limit the increase in global average temperature 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” according to the report. said.
Since the mission, the Albanian government has legislated an enhanced national target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
Independent analysis has found Australia’s new target is consistent with keeping warming to 2°C – above the 1.5°C target seen as essential for the long-term health of the reef.
In last month’s federal budget, the Albanian government announced $1.2 billion in funding for continued work to improve water quality and research to try to build resilience in corals and reefs. .
The mission report says “considerable work” is being done on scientific research and to improve water quality, but progress on water quality is too slow.
Two recommendations called on the Queensland State Government to accelerate the rollout of its Sustainable Fisheries Strategy and phase out the use of gillnets in the Marine Park.
The report states: “Despite unprecedented scientific and management efforts by [Australia] in recent years, the [outstanding universal value] of the property is strongly impacted by climate change factors.
Rising ocean temperatures from burning fossil fuels caused widespread coral bleaching in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022.
The UN-backed mission coincided with the first massive reef bleaching to take place in a La Niña year which in the past has kept ocean temperatures cool enough to protect corals.
Scientists fear that without cooler conditions in the coming weeks, the reef could face bleaching again this summer.
The report states: “The resilience of the property to recover from the impacts of climate change is significantly compromised, particularly – but not exclusively – due to the degradation of water quality.
The mission report was originally due to be released in May 2022, in time for a World Heritage Committee meeting in Russia in July where the reef was due to be discussed again. But the meeting – which was to be chaired by Russia – was postponed following the invasion of Ukraine.
Unesco will now prepare a new report on the state of the reef which will take into account the findings of the mission and any response from state and federal governments.
This report will make formal recommendations directly to the World Heritage Committee ahead of the postponed meeting which is expected to take place in the first half of next year.
Last week, Russia resigned as chair of the 21-member committee, with Saudi Arabia apparently considering taking on the role of chair.
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