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A reprieve, but the Great Barrier Reef remains on death row

The Great Barrier Reef may have been spared the indignity of being listed as a World Heritage Area “in danger” this week, but the Reef’s woes are just beginning. There are 962 properties on the world heritage…

World Heritage won’t mean anything if nothing’s done about climate change. Flickr/

The Great Barrier Reef may have been spared the indignity of being listed as a World Heritage Area “in danger” this week, but the Reef’s woes are just beginning.

There are 962 properties on the world heritage list. Most of these are protected for their cultural values, while many, like the Great Barrier Reef, are protected for their natural values. Thirty-eight sites have been placed on the world heritage “in danger” list in recognition of the damage they have sustained or risks they face.

The World Heritage Committee agreed to postpone their review of the Great Barrier Reef to 2014, as the Queensland and Federal governments prepare reports into coastal development. But it isn’t just coal and ports that are the problem.

It is only a matter of time before the Australian government and the international community will have to face up to reality. Climate change is fundamentally challenging the way we go about protecting the environment.

To protect the reef, look beyond the coast

Managing the Reef now can buy time while a global response is hammered out to deal with climate change and ocean acidification. But the Federal and Queensland governments don’t seem to recognise time is running out.

In fact, neither does the World Heritage regime itself. It remains based on a somewhat dated view about how natural environmental assets should be protected.

The 1972 World Heritage Convention, which defined how and what can be listed as World Heritage, is built on the premise that sites are best protected by conservation at the site. Historically this made sense. The Convention is one of the earliest environmental treaties, and concluded at a time when the main threats to world heritage were highly localised. It is a bit like a museum, seeking to preserve certain outstanding illustrations of cultural and natural property for future generations.

What it doesn’t do is account for natural change, or the much more serious threat of human-induced change. World heritage properties cannot be frozen in time. In the current geological epoch, which we can think of as the Anthropocene, the greatest single threat to many world heritage properties is climate change.

Back in 2004 a report from University of Sydney found the Howard government’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to support international initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions was one reason among several why the Great Barrier Reef might be included on the “in danger” list. We mustn’t let the current debate about development hide the reality of climate change.

World Heritage can’t address this. That is for other regimes, chiefly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to resolve. What World Heritage can do is draw attention to global threats that major environmental assets face. Its “in danger” listing process is a key mechanism to achieve this.

For well over a decade there has been discussion over whether the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on the “in danger” list. The main reason for this is the dawning realisation the Reef will be severely damaged by rising sea temperatures from climate change.

2012: development the new threat

The recent discussions about the reef have focused on the range of developments proposed for the Queensland coast, such as new or expanded ports to facilitate coal exports.

This is based on a 2012 report from UNESCO and the IUCN. It warned Australia the reef would be placed on the “in danger” list unless this development was curtailed or properly assessed.

The report set out 14 detailed recommendations for getting the protection and management back on track. These included:

  • no new port development outside existing port areas
  • an independent review of developments at Gladstone and Curtis
  • an independent review by internationally recognised and widely respected scientific experts of the overall planning, protection and management of the Reef

With official endorsement by the World Heritage Committee in 2012, it was clear the committee was keeping watch on the Reef, and that a brake had to be placed on coast developments.

On a positive note, the report observed that the actual management of the Reef was world-class, and considered the “gold standard” for conserving large marine areas.

2013: still on the brink

In February 2013 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority responded to the 2012 report and its recommendations. Several aspects of the Government’s response have been subject to significant criticism, particularly in respect to Gladstone Harbour.

Media reports earlier this week indicated that discussions at the 37th Session of the World Heritage Committee turned on whether Australia was satisfying a host of “priority issues” for protecting the reef. These have been identified by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the IUCN, but not yet made public.

At the 2013 World Heritage session officials were satisfied that Australia was meeting some but not all of their recommendations. They gave Australia further opportunity before 2014 to show that it is meeting the Convention obligations. There’s an ultimatum of sorts on development – any new coastal development with an impact on the Reef’s heritage values will be considered a violation.

The June 2013 decision of the World Heritage Committee has, like the 2012 decision, again preserved the status quo for the Reef. While recognising the threats to the Reef, those have not yet risen to a level that would allow the Committee to list the property on the “in danger” list.

Without a move on climate change the reef will remain “in danger”, and not just on the World Heritage list.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    The QLD government recently announced that the QLD gas industry has created 30,000 jobs.

    What it didn’t say was that the state’s population grew by 400,000 over 5 years (according to the last census).

    Therefore, the 30,000 jobs created was only 7.5% of what was needed, or the gas industry will have to increase in size by 13 times its current size just to accommodate the increase in population every 5 years.

    That will be devastating to the reef, and any other major growth in industry will be just as devastating also.

    The decline of the reef is simply an example of the effects on our environment of overpopulation.

    1. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Faulty logic.

      Why should any one industry have to create jobs for the entire population increase?

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Andy Saunders

      What sort of industry should QLD be creating to employ the increasing population, (about 90,000 extra per year) and that industry has to have minimal or no impact on the environment?

      There isn’t such an industry.

    3. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      No, modern economies these days are diversified. More than one industry.

      What's the problem with that?

    4. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Andy Saunders

      All industries impact on the environment, although some impact more than others.

      Most of the GBR grew before white settlement, and as Colin Hunt mentioned on ABC radio recently, the amount of nutrient now swamping the reef is many times more than it was before white settlement.

      The amount of decline of the reef since white settlement is major decline.

      The death of the reef is inevitable, but that death is being accelerated by population increase.

  2. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    There's Good News regarding port and coastal development over at Reuters' science news website, Science Daily.

    A 19 June 2013 report, "Siberian Caves Warn of Permafrost Meltdown" ( informs us that widespread Siberian permafrost occurred during interglacial periods ~1 million years ago and ~400,000 years ago, when global average temperatures exceeded 1.5 deg C above pre-Industrial Late Holocene averages.

    This means export markets for coal and gas are going to collapse more rapidly than infrastructure investors would like to think, and Coral Sea should run a bit clearer.

    With more CO2 now in the atmosphere than any time in the last 4 million years global average temperatures, including those permafrost-thawing periods, the spike in global temperatures ensuing from all those methane releases will put the dampeners on all coastal development - literally.

  3. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Since there is nothing that Australia can do to make any difference to global atmosphere CO2 levels, it looks like the Reef will have to be listed as being in danger. Mind you, I still have a copy of a poster produced by the NT Conservation Commission in 1980 saying that, at the current rate of clearing, the Amazon forests would be gone by the year 2000. Last time I looked, Brasil still had about 80% of its original rain forests so it's just possible there was a small amount of exaggeration in that prediction.

  4. Bruce WILDCARD Davey

    4th generation Professional Fisherman at WILDCARD WILDCAUGHT Pty Ltd

    Arrr, the irony me hearties. As a 4th generation professional fisherman having lived, fished and dived the Great Barrier Reef extensively the past 40 years from Cairns to the Kimberly's WA, I can assure you all sitting 1,000's of miles away from the reef itself, that other than varied inshore population areas, the GBR is still as pristine as ever.
    Millions of years old, the GBR will still be there for millions of years more and long after we're long gone.
    But there has been many other massive…

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    1. Bruce WILDCARD Davey

      4th generation Professional Fisherman at WILDCARD WILDCAUGHT Pty Ltd

      In reply to Andy Saunders

      The average time for Govt. to accept a compo claim is 18 months.
      The average time for Govt. to process a compo claim is 18 months.
      The average time for Govt. to access + pay a claim is 18 months.
      I have recently received Burke's 127 PAGE "Guidelines for Paying Commonwealth Marine Park Compensation."
      Did I say 127 PAGES. YEP. 127 PAGES. I've binned it. The Govt. accesses all our fishing logbooks, tax records and works out our profit and loss over 5 years from 2007 - 2012. They then average our PROFIT only over those 5 years. The Govt. then only pays the Fisherman compensation for a maximum of 3 years x the average annual profit. Nothing for my crew or the vertically intergrated