Australian Government Rejects UN-Proposed Protections for Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

In a report released on June 21st, the UN recommended placing the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) on the list of World Heritage in Danger. The report stated:  "there is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger." But the Australian government and tourism industry opposed the classification, saying that conservation investments have made the GBR "the best managed reef in the world."

Still, Australian environmental activists say more can be done to protect and restore the reef and that this should be a wake-up call for the conservative government leadership.

Why This Matters

In the past 25 years, nearly half of all the coral in the GBR has disappeared due to rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and coral bleaching. The reef is one of the most complex ecosystems in the world, supporting well over 5,000 different species (including humans). Coastal communities in the region rely on the reef for tourism, food, and flood protection (its total economic, social and icon asset value is $56 billion). It's not just the GBR that's suffering: coral reefs across the globe are deteriorating rapidly. The Australian government claims to be a global leader in coral reef conservation. Still, environmentalists and experts say that if the government doesn't intensify its efforts, the GBR could disappear entirely.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park: Coral bleaching 101, April 16, 2020.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation: The economic, social and icon value of the Great Barrier Reef, June 25, 2017.

In Denial

"This draft recommendation has been made without examining the reef first hand and without the latest information," said Sussan Ley, Australian Minister for the Environment, in opposition to the UN’s recommendation. "This sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making."

This isn’t the first time that Australia has disputed the decision. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended the same designation in 2015, but the Australian government lobbied against it, claiming that the international body had embarked on a misinformation campaign to smear the image of the GBR. Now, the government and reef tourism operators say that the Reef 2050 Plan, implemented in 2015, has successfully maintained the beauty and health of the reef.

  • Scientists and environmentalists say otherwise. WWF-Australia's Head of Oceans, Richard Leck said, "The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian Government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change." He added, "The prospect of losing the World Heritage status of our Reef will be a huge shock for many Australians, but it is a powerful message that our Government needs to urgently lift its ambition on the threats to its existence -- climate change and water quality."

A 2019 report from the Australian government showed that the Reef 2050 plan had made some great strides but was ultimately failing to stop the reef’s decline completely. Terry Hughes, a professor at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said: "Business-as-usual managing of the Great Barrier Reef is not stuff to stop its ongoing decline… If we can reach the Paris target, or very close to it, we’ll still have a Barrier Reef … we've got a narrowing window of opportunity."

HBO/VICE: Why Australians Can't Agree On How To Save The Great Barrier Reef, May 5, 2018.

National Geographic: How the Great Barrier Reef Formed, November 10, 2020.