Australia must embrace bold climate policies in response to Great Barrier Reef threat, say experts

Australia needs to respond to a United Nations warning on the threat to its iconic Great Barrier Reef with bolder climate policies that cut planet-heating emissions further and create a greener economy, environmentalists and researchers have said.

The world's most extensive and spectacular coral reef ecosystem – off Australia s north-eastern coast – should be added to a list of World Heritage sites that are "in danger", a UN panel said this week, drawing an angry response from Australia.

The final decision is expected to be made by the World Heritage Committee next month.

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"I hope the most important outcome of the recommendation is that it triggers much more positive and vigorous action from the Australian government in reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly and deeply," said Will Steffen, a climate scientist and professor at the Australian National University.

Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Picture: William West/AFP via Getty Images
Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Picture: William West/AFP via Getty Images

He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: "The pressure on them is increasing and hopefully it will strengthen to the point that they have to take meaningful action on climate change.”

The reef, which was listed as a World Heritage site in 1981 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has lost more than half its coral in the past 30 years.

It came close to being placed on the UN "in danger" list in 2015, but that was averted due to high-profile lobbying by the Australian government, which fears that losing its heritage status would lead to fewer tourists visiting the attraction.

Since then, coral-bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 – caused by severe marine heatwaves – have further damaged its health and affected its animal, bird and marine populations, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of Queensland. Picture: Sarah Lai/AFP via Getty Images

The UNESCO committee said action was needed to counter the effects of climate change as the prospects of the reef retaining its cherished world heritage status had deteriorated.

Australian Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said Canberra would challenge the recommendation, adding it was based on a "flawed approach ... without adequate consultation".

"I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world's reefs, but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best managed reef in the world for an 'in danger' listing," she added in a statement.

Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University, said the UNESCO decision was "a crucial moment" because of the external pressure it put on Australia's politicians, who were more used to in-fighting.

Australian environment minister Sussan Ley (left) speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP via AP

"The real hope is for concerted change in federal climate policy and coordinated federal-Queensland cooperation on water quality issues," he said.

Climate ‘laggard’

The UNESCO warning adds to growing international appeals for Australia to strengthen its climate policies, seen by critics as weak and lacking a firm net-zero emissions goal, said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF-Australia.

"The recommendation ... is consistent with a broader global trend that is starting to call Australia out for being a laggard on climate change," he added.

Mr Leck cited comments made by the US and UK governments and last week's meeting of G7 leaders.

Once the shock of the UNESCO recommendation subsides, the Australian government will hopefully realise the move is based on science and take the need for action seriously, said Mr Leck.

Green groups and researchers urged Australia to set a carbon-neutral goal and introduce policies in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming.

"Australia needs to do its fair share to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C – a critical threshold for coral reefs," said Imogen Zethoven, a consultant for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

"Linking climate policy to the long-term survivability of the Great Barrier Reef is critical."

Reef responsibility

Australia's reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita.

Its current climate policies are "insufficient", according to analysis by research coalition Climate Action Tracker.

Lesley Hughes, a scientist at the Climate Council and biology professor at Macquarie University, said the Australian government had stewardship of "one of the world's most precious and iconic ecosystems".

"But its continued support for fossil fuels and its lack of effective climate policy means it's utterly failing to live up to that responsibility," she added.

"Australia is standing still while the world moves on and the international community is quickly losing patience."

In a sign of that position, 12 international ambassadors to Unesco, including Australia’s, have written to UNESCO to “share collective concerns” about its decision making.

A former Australian government world heritage official said the letter, sent to Unesco’s director general, Audrey Azoulay, on Wednesday, should be seen as part of the country’s promised lobbying effort as it desperately tries to avoid the reef being included on the list.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said his country had been “busy talking to our friends”, listing the 11 other countries that signed the letter.

The letter is signed by Australia’s ambassador to Unesco, Paris-based Megan Anderson, alongside her equivalents from Indonesia, Canada, the UK, France, Thailand, Hungary, Poland, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey and Spain.

Slow, but steady

Conservationists said it was unlikely Australia would act quickly after the UNESCO recommendation, because of domestic political risks, but a shift could be expected in the medium to long term.

They urged the government to ban new fossil fuel development, abandon its gas-fired Covid-19 recovery plan, and invest in and promote renewable energy and electric vehicles.

"It is inevitable that Australia will embrace a renewable future – a future where we take climate change much more seriously," said WWF's Mr Leck.

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