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An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef
An aerial view of the Great Barrier ReefImage: Ingo Schulz/McPhoto/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

UNESCO: Great Barrier Reef in Australia not yet 'in danger'

July 23, 2021

Australia successfully lobbied to prevent a downgrade of the Great Barrier Reef's World Heritage status. The reef attracts 5 million tourists annually and supports roughly 70,000 jobs.


Australia narrowly avoided a downgrade of the Great Barrier Reef's World Heritage status to "in danger" on Friday, as UNESCO opted to defer the decision and seek an updated progress report.

Concerns about climate change-driven damage to the Great Barrier Reef's fragile ecosystem and corals in particular drove the discussion to the table in the first place. 

A decision to classify the reef as "in danger" had already been delayed once from 2015.

The Australian government succeeded then as it succeeded now via a diplomatic lobbying effort which included taking key ambassadors snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef this time around.

Blue-green damselfish swim in the Great Barrier Reef
Blue-green damselfish swim in the Great Barrier ReefImage: University of Bristol/Isla Keesje Davidson

Bleaching events and industrialization threaten the reef

The reef is 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) long and is considered one of the great natural wonders of the world. Rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming though have put it in peril.

Due to unusually warm ocean temperatures, the Great Barrier Reef has faced three bleaching events in the last five years, with one each in 2016, 2017 and last year.

Dying corals in the Great Barrier Reef
Dying corals in the Great Barrier ReefImage: Imago Images/imagebroker

The reef has also been damaged by cyclones and the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eats the coral. Factories along the coast have also done damage to the waters.

Tim Badman, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's world heritage program told AFP: "the prospects for future recovery have significantly deteriorated."

Australia's intense lobbying led by the environment minister

Sussan Ley, Australia's environment minister, traveled to over a dozen countries to encourage some of the 21 member nations on the UNESCO World Heritage committee to vote against reclassifying the Great Barrier Reef.

She addressed the group virtually from quarantine in Australia after returning from a trip to the Middle East. She also flew to Paris earlier this month to lobby certain member nations there.

"May I sincerely thank the esteemed delegates for recognizing Australia's commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef," Ley told the committee.

Environmentalists were less pleased by the decision. Australia is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and the mining industry with minimal efforts being made to curb carbon emissions due to the cost to the economy.

David Ritter, chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia told Reuters news agency: "This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history".

"This is not an achievement - it is a day of infamy for the Australian government," Ritter said.

However, on the committee only Norway concurred the reef was in peril.

What happens next?

For now, Australia will have to produce an updated status report on the Great Barrier Reef in the coming years.

Australien | Korallenriff | Great Barrier Reef
Image: Marco Brivio/dpa/picture-alliance

The delay also has political implications in Australia where jobs and livelihoods are contingent on the continued attractiveness of the reef as a draw for tourists. 

ar/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)


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