Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be put on the list of world heritage sites that are “in danger,” says UNESCO in a draft report that urges the country to take “accelerated action at all possible levels,” on climate change.
In a meeting to be hosted by China next month, the UN’s cultural body plans to add the world’s largest natural reef ecosystem to this list of heritage sites that includes 53 places around the globe such as Everglades National Park in the US, and the Sumatran rainforests of Indonesia.
However, the plan faces strong opposition from the Australian government.
Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the country would challenge the proposal which she called a “back-flip on previous assurances from UN officials,” who in 2017 had also sought to include the reef ecosystem in the list, but later opted against it.
“This sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making,” Ley said in a statement.
The Great Barrier Reef gained World Heritage ranking in 1981, but over the years due to accelerated global warming, and ocean acidification due to the burning of fossil fuels, the ecosystem that is clearly visible even from space has undergone several bleaching events in the past five years.
As temperatures rise, the corals expel their symbiotic partners the marine algae – zooxanthellae – that live in them, giving them their vibrant colours and food supply through photosynthesis.
Over the years, scientists have pointed out that the number of bleaching events is growing in the continent, with the first such event affecting all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and parts of the southern sectors – reported in April, 2020.
UNESCO believes adding the reef to the “in danger” list can help address the growing threats to this fragile ecosystem by unlocking access to more funds or by publicising the issue.
While there are some speculations that long-running tensions between Australia and China, which currently chairs the UNESCO, may have influenced the decision, environmental groups have expressed the need for better efforts from the Australian government to combat climate change.
WWF head of oceans Richard Leck said while the move may be shocking to some Australians, “it was a powerful message that the government needs to lift its game on climate change.”
“...after 3 recent mass bleaching events, we must do everything possible to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C,” WWF said in a tweet, referring to the internationally accepted average temperature increase limit of 1.5°C, beyond which there could be increased risks to global health, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.