UNESCO said Thursday its World Heritage Committee (WHC) had decided not to place Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on its list of sites “in danger” despite concern over coral bleaching.
A WHC spokeswoman said the Committee, which is meeting in Poland, had made the decision late Wednesday and expressed “deep concern” over two straight years of mass coral bleaching, which aerial surveys found had affected some two-thirds of the World Heritage-listed site.
The bleaching is the result of warming sea temperatures linked to climate change.
In reaching its decision, the Committee noted Australian attempts to preserve the largest living structure on Earth under its Reef 2050 Plan and did not find it necessary to place the site on its danger list, spokeswoman Anika Paliszewska said, despite fears on whether conservation targets can be met.
WHC lauded “major efforts deployed by all those involved” in the Australian preservation plan but “strongly encourages (Australia) to step up efforts to ensure that medium- and long-term objectives fixed by the Plan are met, which is essential for the global resilience” of the reef.
In a draft report to the WHC last month, UNESCO said climate change remained the most significant threat to the future of the coral expanse which stretches for some 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles) and criticised Australia for slow progress towards achieving water quality targets.
The reef is notably threatened by a proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish, a coral predator which has a devastating impact on coral reef ecosystems.
– ‘Priceless and irreplaceable’ –
The Australian government welcomed UNESCO’s decision, saying Canberra will speed up efforts “to help arrest the flow of sediment, nutrients and pesticide into the Reef” and tackle the damaging effects of the starfish outbreaks.
“We agree with the Committee’s assessment that addressing the quality of water entering the Reef remains critically important,” Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said.
Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s government “is committed to the preservation and management of the Great Barrier Reef –- a commitment made all the more important by the mass coral bleaching,” Frydenberg said.
A Deloitte Access Economics report commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation last month stated that the site is an asset worth Aus$56 billion ($42 billion) supporting 64,000 jobs and as an ecosystem and economic driver is “too big to fail.”
That report was the first time the economic and social value of the reef — which is bigger than Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined — had been calculated.
As well as the problem posed by starfish, the site is also under pressure from farming run-off and development.
The report’s lead author, John O’Mahony, said the study made clear the reef was “priceless and irreplaceable” both in terms of its biodiversity and its job-creating potential.
Australia in May hosted a summit of more than 70 of the world’s leading marine experts to work on a blueprint on how best to respond to the threats facing the reef.
Options explored included developing coral nurseries, culling of crown-of-thorns starfish, expanding monitoring systems and identifying priority sites for coral restoration.
In April, Australia’s independent Climate Council warned further damage to the reef could cut tourism by more than a million a year, costing up to Aus$1.0 billion and also around 10,000 jobs.
Canberra has committed more than Aus$2.0 billion to protect the site over the next decade but has been criticised for backing a huge coal project by Indian mining giant Adani near the reef, which environmentalists warn would harm the natural wonder.
Greenpeace warned Thursday that Australia is not doing enough to save the reef.
“What we should be doing is cutting fossil fuels subsidies, banning new coal mines and offering the world real climate leadership,” Greenpeace campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst said.
“Australia must act if it is serious about protecting the Reef. This means we must keep 90 per cent of existing coal reserves in the ground,” Vander Elst said.