China denies influencing UNESCO move on Great Barrier Reef | News | DW | 18.07.2021

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China denies influencing UNESCO move on Great Barrier Reef

A top Chinese official has rejected Australian claims that a UNESCO move to class the reef as "in danger" is political. The decision was based on data and reports from Australia itself, he said.

 Great Barrier Reef from the air

Australia vehemently opposes a UNESCO proposal to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered

Political tensions between Beijing and Canberra had nothing to do with UNESCO's proposal to label the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger,'' the Chinese official chairing this year's meeting of the World Heritage Committee said on Sunday.

His remarks came after apparent speculation in Australia that China might be steering the decision as a political maneuver amid strained bilateral ties.

"Australia, as a member state of the World Heritage Committee, should ... attach importance to the opinions of the advisory bodies and earnestly fulfill the duty of World Heritage protection instead of making groundless accusations against other states," said Tian Xuejun, who is the Chinese vice minister of education.

Tian said the Great Barrier Reef proposal was based on data from Australia itself and recommendations from an advisory body.

Coral on the Great Barrier Reef

The reef has lost much of its spectacular coral in the past decades

What has Australia said?

The committee, which is meeting both virtually and in the Chinese city of Fuzhou for the next two weeks, is to consider the draft decision on Friday. 

Australia reacted angrily to the announcement last month that the reef could be put on the in-danger list. Environment Minister Sussan Ley called the decision "flawed," saying that "clearly there were politics behind it,'' though she did not mention China by name. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years over a number of issues.

In a bid to prevent the red-listing of the reef, one of Australia's best-known and popular tourist destinations, the Canberra government has invited more than a dozen ambassadors on a snorkeling trip to the reef ahead of the meeting.

Why does UNESCO see the reef as endangered?

The draft decision says that Australia's long-term plan for the reef "requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change."

The Australian government blames global warming for mass coral bleaching in recent years, but UNESCO experts say that pollution run-off has contributed to a drop in water quality and say clean-up efforts have been insufficient.

In particular, they have pointed to the nearby Carmichael Coal Mine as a source of damage to the reef.

Why is Australia worried?

The reef was designated a World Heritage site in 1981, but Australia was warned as early as 2014 that an in-danger listing was being considered.

The World Heritage designation can encourage tourism while giving an incentive to governments to protect cultural or environmental treasures.

Having a landmark placed on the endangered list is seen by some countries as a stain on their honor, and Australia in particular seems to fear that the reef could become less attractive to tourists. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the reef brought in an estimated €4.06 billion ($4.8 billion) a year in tourism revenue for the Australian economy.

The Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia stretches over more than 348,000 square kilometers (134,000 square miles), an area larger than that of Italy. It is home to a spectacular array of corals and colorful fishes.  

tj/sri (Reuters, AFP, dpa)


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