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The fate of the Great Barrier Reef is at stake as UNESCO today lists it as a World Heritage Site in Danger, along with six other sites around the world that are suffering from environmental damage, uncontrolled development, excessive tourism, or security concerns.
But what is the World Heritage List?
The World Heritage List compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) includes more than 1,100 sites around the world of “outstanding universal value” and significance in terms of nature or culture.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest biome, visible from space, was listed in 1981 for its “outstanding natural beauty” and broad biodiversity.
However, this list is subject to change and a site may be demoted or completely removed on the recommendation of the United Nations.
Listing a site at risk is not a punishment, as some countries misuse this designation to draw the world’s attention to and help protect their resources, but others consider it a disgrace.
Why might the Great Barrier Reef lose its classification? The barrier has been subjected to three waves of severe bleaching in the past five years, causing, by some estimates, to have lost half of its coral since 1995 in the face of rising ocean waters.
It was also damaged by several hurricanes, exacerbated by climate change, as well as the increase in the distribution of coral-eating thornless starfish.
“It is a warning to the international community and to all of humanity that the coral ecosystem is in danger,” said Fanny Duffer, head of UNESCO’s World Marine Heritage Programme.
Scientists working with the Australian government noted that corals have recovered somewhat in the past year, but acknowledge that this recovery does not significantly improve the “very bleak” outlook on the horizon.
What Australia thinks Australian authorities fear this classification in the number of endangered sites will negatively impact the barrier’s ability to attract tourists, the pearl of Australia’s tourism.
Tourist revenues from this 2,300km site equaled $4.8 billion before the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Australia recently launched a lobbying campaign to prevent the site from being downgraded, sent its environment minister to Paris to meet members of the World Heritage Committee and took prominent ambassadors on a diving tour of the site.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee consists of 21 member states, including China, Russia and Australia itself, and will make a decision on July 23.
What is the likely outcome?
It’s not the first time the UN has threatened to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef from the list, and Australia thwarted such a decision in 2015 after a fierce pressure campaign.
Authorities launched the “Reef 250” plan, investing billions of dollars in protecting the reef, for example by improving water quality in an effort to allay fears.
UNESCO acknowledged these efforts but blamed Australia for its climate inaction as the government still refuses to commit to zero emissions by 2050.
The decision is now in the hands of the World Heritage Committee, but 12 other countries have proposed delaying the decision until 2023, following alleged pressure from Australian officials.
It takes 14 votes to pass the proposal, and Australia is still seeking one vote to support its demands to achieve its goal.
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