UNESCO has stopped short of listing the Great Barrier Reef as endangered but expressed concerns over its health, as environmental groups say the Australian government must up efforts to protect the unique ecosystem.
"This decision has been described by some as a reprieve for the reef. It is not a reprieve - it is a big, red flag from UNESCO," said Shani Tager, Greenpeace Australia Reef campaigner said in a statement.
UNESCO said it welcomed the Australian government's efforts to protect the site, including commitments to cut pollution from agricultural run-off and limit port development through the protection of greenfield sites, as well as increasing funds to improve water quality.
But it also said that the reef's outlook was "poor, and that climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal development are major threats."
Shipping out a carbon bomb
Campaigners say it is a bitter irony that the nearby port development represents both a risk from dredging and marine traffic - and the climate impact from coal that it will be used to export.
"It couldn't be more symbolic,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, head of the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland. "First you have the threat posed by the port expansion itself, and then the ports are used to ship out coal to the rest of the world to be burned, releasing CO2 that will in turn damage the reef."
The port expansion is driven by plans to open new coal mines in the Galilee Basin, which has been named as one of the world's biggest "carbon bombs." Greenpeace says that if it were a country the area would rank as the world's seventh biggest emitter of CO2 from fossil fuels.
"Eminent scientists have said we can't expand the coal industry and have a healthy Great Barrier Reef," Greenpeace's Leanne Minshull told DW. "Regardless of UNESCO's decision, the Australian government needs to look at the science and get serious about protecting the reef."
Coral fading fast
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest array of coral reefs populated by 1,500 species of fish, over 30 species of whales and dolphins, and endangered species including the large green turtle dugong.
In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science released a report sayíng the reef had lost half of its coral cover since 1985.
Hoegh-Guldberg has been studying the Great Barrier Reef for more than 30 years. His work has indicated that a "business as usual" scenario would see the world's coral reefs wiped out by the mid 21st century.
"Coral is very sensitive to climate change," he told DW. "There is only so much CO2 we can emit before we push temperatures beyond the level that corals can survive."
Government responding to pressure
Still, Hoegh-Guldberg says that the Australian government has already responded to scrutiny from UNESCO.
"UNESCO has called Australia to account over how it has lived up to its obligations to look after the reef," he said. "Real action has been taken by the Queensland and federal governments, and this wouldn't have happened without this process."
He added that the government needed to "ramp up" its efforts to protect the reef and close loopholes to limit port expansion. But he said that listing the site as "in danger" could have had the effect of the government withdrawing resources if its saw its efforts on protection going unrewarded.
Australia also has economic reasons to protect the reef, whose tourism industry generates over 1.5 billion US dollars each year.
The draft decision will be discussed at a UNESCO meeting in Bonn next month.