You might be forgiven for thinking that Australia can now breathe a sigh of relief, after the World Heritage Committee decided earlier this month not to add the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to the World Heritage in Danger list. But make no mistake – more than ever, the eyes of the world remain on the GBR.
In a blog post, the Committee summarised its decision like this:
In an intensive debate on the threats to the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the Committee decided not to add the site to the World Heritage in Danger List but to observe further developments in the coral reef off the Australian coast closely. Australia has been requested to submit a progress report to the planned protective measures within 18 months.
Most committee members acknowledged the global significance of the GBR. This is not surprising, given that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) wrote in 1981: “If any coral reef in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef is the site to be chosen”.
During the discussion, numerous nations pointed out the global importance of the GBR, including Jamaica, Algeria, the Philippines, and South Korea, who said that “the symbolic importance of the [GBR] as World Heritage is of utmost importance to the entire world. We must not lose this heritage for our future generation and the global ecosystem”.
However, many committee members went beyond such accolades and expressed their ongoing concerns strongly during the discussion.
Recognising the challenges
In their introductory comments leading into the GBR discussion, both the World Heritage Secretariat and IUCN acknowledged that “the scale of major challenges facing the [GBR] is substantial”.
Finland said: “We strongly encourage [Australia] to address the cumulative impacts of climate change, threats in upstream sediments and nutrients as well as increasing ship traffic that have impact on the Outstanding Universal Value [of the GBR]”. Germany expressed concern about the “continued dumping of maintenance dredge spoil”, noting that “the overall outlook of the [GBR] is poor, and major threats and their cumulative impacts present considerable challenges to the present and future management of the Reef”, whereas Poland said “we are well aware of the vulnerability of the [GBR] and the need for constant monitoring”.
The Philippines noted that “the problem of scale adds to the complexity of the situation and undoubtedly there are knowledge gaps which [Australia] still needs to address”. Poland, Jamaica, Croatia, Turkey and Korea also referred to the long-term challenges facing the GBR in their comments.
Climate change still dominates
Various speakers acknowledged that climate change remains the major threat facing the GBR. Japan, for instance, said “it is essential to improve the health of the Reef’s ecosystem and to enhance the resilience of the Reef”, while Colombia called for a permanent budget to mitigate the effect of climate change.
The closing comments from Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad pledged “to address the impacts of climate change which remains the most significant long-term threat to the survival of the Reef”. However, the Australian government’s 2050 Reef plan regrettably does little to address climate change, a concern raised by the Australian Academy of Science.
Concerns for the declining World Heritage values
Countries all over the world raised concerns about the Reef’s declining values and the consequent need for greater protection. Finland said that it shares “the concerns that many people and organisations around the world have expressed over the poor condition and the foreseen negative trend of many biodiversity values in the [GBR]”.
Germany recalled a decision last year in which the committee urged Australia to ensure “that developments inside port areas do not impact individually or cumulatively on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property”. Japan noted that “the overall outlook [has] worsened since 2009”, while Kazakhstan expressed hope that Australia “will make efforts for reducing negative impacts of development”.
Support for the role of civil society and NGOs
It is clear that civil society, including non-government organisations (NGOs) and independent scientists, has played a significant role in focusing attention on the threats to the GBR in recent years. Certainly the publicity around the Gladstone and Abbot Point developments has contributed prominently, along with the efforts of key NGOs.
Poland, India, Jamaica, Korea, Peru and Japan all provided supporting comments about the role of civil society in the GBR, and Finland stated “the discussions on the GBR provides an excellent example of how civil society can contribute with their expertise and support the protection and conservation of world heritage”.
Committee Chair Maria Böhmer’s closing comments included:
I am also very grateful for the commitment of civil society, represented by Greenpeace and WWF today … they also stand for the many people who with great commitment advocated for the iconic Great Barrier Reef".
Contrast that with the reception some of these NGOs have received in the Australian media.
Proving the progress
Also in the Australian media have been claims that the GBR has “returned to the normal five yearly reporting cycle”. But this is incorrect: the Committee’s final decision requires Australia to demonstrate within the next 18 months how it will implement the long-term plan designed to restore the values of the GBR World Heritage Area, and then report again in 2019.
The Chair summarised the Committee’s view immediately following the decision:
…we all know, and this has been very clearly stated here, that the decision that has been taken today does not end the debate. It means entering into a new phase… For now it all comes to the implementation and further steps…
There is now a continuing expectation that Australia will deliver on its commitments, especially as this globally iconic site remains under threat.
The Australian government has 18 months to show that the Reef 2050 Plan is making progress and receiving adequate funding, and it also has until December 2019 to demonstrate that the plan is delivering on its goal of “effective and sustained protection”.
After the decision, the Queensland Minister Steven Miles said: “Now we need to deliver, we need to implement (the plan) and that’s what they’ll be watching in coming years. It’s no doubt going to be tough to achieve what we need to achieve, but it’s doable”.
Given Australia is a rich country and previously had a reputation for being a global leader in marine conservation, it is doable. But it is going to take some hard decisions to fulfil our global responsibility.