World-leading environmental scientists, including Australia’s pre-eminent coral reef experts, have publicly praised UNESCO’s decision to recommend the Great Barrier Reef be rated “in danger”, a move that was slammed by the federal government.
By Mike Foley
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – whose member countries control World Heritage listings – issued a draft “in danger” rating over the health of the Great Barrier Reef, due to poor water quality and the impact of climate change.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley and Foreign Minister Marise Payne wrote to UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay and said the draft listing was “extremely disappointing” because it lacked scientific rigour and “premature” because UNESCO had not finalised a policy for assessing global warming impacts.
Ms Ley penned an article in The Australian this week to argue Australia had been unfairly “singled out” by UNESCO as a “poster child of a wider agenda” of climate action, which also failed to recognise recent gains in managing run-off to improve water quality.
But in an open letter to UNESCO and Ms Azoulay, five world-renowned scientists endorsed the in-danger warning. They said while governments were investing in the reef, climate change and water quality targets had not been met.
“UNESCO has made the right decision to recommend that the world’s most iconic Reef system be inscribed on the List of World Heritage In Danger,” the letter said.
Forecasts for the reef’s survival are dire. There have been three mass coral bleaching events since 2016. A recent Australian Academy of Sciences report said if the world warmed by 2 degrees only 1 per cent of corals would survive.
Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said Australia’s current emissions reduction commitments are consistent with a climate change trend of a “lethal” 3 degrees of global warming.
“We therefore greatly appreciate UNESCO’s draft recommendation for Australia to urgently address the threat of climate change,” he said.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg was one of the signatories of the letter, along with Terry Hughes, the founding director of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr Sylvia Earle, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Professor Johan Rockström and International Coral Reef Society president Professor Andréa G. Grottoli.
Professor Terry Hughes said the draft in-danger listing “presents a challenge to all nations to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.
“It should be no surprise UNESCO has linked Australia’s lack of progress on reducing emissions to an in danger listing on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia should be at the forefront of international climate efforts and that’s hardly the case,” Professor Hughes said.
The James Cook University associate professor said on Thursday that governments had made welcomed investments in water quality but “those efforts have not met their targets”.
The earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees and medium-range estimates forecast 1.5 degrees of warming by 2045 to 2050.
Unlike most nations that are aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier, Australia has not set a deadline to reach net zero emissions. Australia has committed to reducing its emissions by at least 26 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The UK aims to cut emissions 78 per cent by 2035, Japan 46 per cent cut by 2030, Canada 45 per cent and the US 50 per cent by 2030.
The World Heritage Committee will meet from July 16 to 31 to decide whether to accept or modify the draft decision on the Great Barrier Reef.
Originally published at The sydney morning herald