UNESCO’s Great Barrier Reef decision

Photo credit: Australian Geographic

Photo credit: Australian Geographic

The Great Barrier Reef has been under much discussion recently, after a report from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) identified substantial risks to the world’s largest coral reef system, mainly due to climate change, coastal development, poor water quality from land-based run off and fishing.

Last year, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reported that the reef is predicted to degrade under all future climate change scenarios as a result of coral bleaching and disease which will effect the whole ecosystem. This is in culmination with a huge array of other threats.

Now in 2015, a draft decision by UNESCO proposes not to list the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area as “in danger”, but it does put Australia on notice. The decision does not rule out listing the reef as “in danger” in the future however.

The draft decision demands a progress report on the government’s policies by 1st December 2016, declaring that if “anticipated progress is not being made”, the GBR will be considered by the Committee in 2017. The draft also requests a full update on the conservation status of the reefs by December 2019 to demonstrate the impact the plans are having.

The Australian government has so far promised to: restrict new port developments in Queensland to within existing sites as opposed to untouched areas; limit dredging outside these areas for 10 years and reverse the earlier decision to dump material dredged from nearby ports in the waters of the World Heritage Area. However, some of these commitments still need to be legislated and are yet to be backed with adequate funds. The government needs to demonstrate that the necessary investment is being made to achieve their plans and that this will be sustained.

Both federal and state governments have also committed to a long-term sustainability plan called Reef 2050 as a response to UNESCO’s concerns in March this year. The ecosystem’s response to these policy changes will be slow. The governments final commitment will be guided from the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report, which is carried out every five years. If the anticipated results of the Reef 2050 plan fail, the reef could be classed as “in danger” after 2020.

The 21 nations in UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will decide whether to accept the draft decision at a meeting in Germany at the end of June.

Regardless of final decision at the end of the month, Australia must do more to address the wide range of the threats highlighted in its own reports and show a genuine commitment to prevent the projected declines and improve the reef’s capacity to recover.

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Lucy Grable

Lucy Grable

MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills student at Reading Uni | BSc Marine Zoology | Website Editor MARINElife | Zanzibar humpback whale researcher|Marine wildlife enthusiast

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