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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef pictured in 2017. Photo: Kyodo News via AP

Australia and China clash over Unesco plan to downgrade Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status

  • The Great Barrier Reef has suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years, prompting Unesco to consider listing it as ‘in danger’
  • ‘We will appeal but China is in control,’ an Australian government source said. Beijing dismissed the claim of interference as ‘lies and misinformation’
Australia on Tuesday said it will strongly oppose a Unesco plan to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” over deterioration caused by climate change, which has created yet another flashpoint in its relationship with China.

An Australian government source has suggested China was responsible for pushing for the reef’s World Heritage Status to be downgraded, but Beijing on Tuesday dismissed the accusation.

“This is entirely baseless slandering – the same as the many lies and misinformation spread by some Australians who did that out of their ideological bias,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry.

The UN body on Monday released a draft report recommending the reef’s World Heritage status be reconsidered because of its dramatic coral decline, after years of public threats to do so. Environmental campaigners said the decision highlighted Australia’s lack of action to curb its carbon emissions which contribute to global warming.
Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley, left, speaks to the media at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday. Photo: AAP via AP
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Australia would challenge the move, accusing UN officials of going back on their assurances ahead of the World Heritage Committee’s 44th session in China next month, where the recommendation will be formally considered.

“Politics have subverted a proper process and for the World Heritage Committee to not even foreshadow this listing is, I think, appalling,” she told reporters in Canberra.

The UN body did not consider the billions of dollars spent attempting to protect the world’s largest coral reef, she added.

The committee’s draft report did commend Australia’s efforts to improve reef quality and its financial commitment. But it noted “with the utmost concern and regret … that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor”, referring to Australia’s move to downgrade the reef’s health status after back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

Ley said she had spoken to Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay overnight on Monday to express “very clearly our strong disappointment, even bewilderment”.

“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” she said, without elaborating.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost half its corals over past 25 years

A government source said Canberra believes China, which chairs the committee, is responsible for the move as part of a trend of souring relations between the two countries.

“We will appeal but China is in control,” the source said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to talk to the media.

Placement on the UN body’s in-danger list is not considered a sanction. According to Unesco, some nations have their sites added to gain international attention and help to save them but it is seen as a dishonour by others.


Australia’s Great Barrier Reef outlook drops to ‘very poor’ amid climate change threat

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef outlook drops to ‘very poor’ amid climate change threat

Australia has resisted calls to commit to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the country hoped to reach carbon neutral “as soon as possible” without harming its commodity-dependent economy.

The downgrade recommendation for the Great Barrier Reef prompted environmental groups to take aim at the Australian government’s reluctance to take stronger climate action.

The Climate Council said it brought “shame on the federal government, which is standing by as the reef declines rather than fighting to protect it”.

Australia’s climate record is more consistent with … a level that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs
Imogen Zethoven, Australian Marine Conservation Society
“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,” WWF head of oceans Richard Leck said.
Aside from its inestimable natural, scientific and environmental value, the 2,300km-long reef was worth an estimated US$4.8 billion a year in tourism revenue for the Australian economy before the coronavirus pandemic.
In December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said climate change had pushed the reef into critical condition.

Australian Marine Conservation Society environmental consultant Imogen Zethoven said the Unesco report made clear that limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels was critical for the Great Barrier Reef.

Here’s how Australia will look if world heats up by 3 degrees Celsius

“Australia’s climate record is more consistent with a 2.5 to 3 Celsius rise in global average temperature – a level that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs,” she said.

The Great Barrier Reef has now suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years, losing half its corals since 1995 as ocean temperatures have climbed.

Bleaching occurs when changes in ocean temperatures stress healthy corals, causing them to expel algae living in their tissues, which drains them of their vibrant colours and can lead to their death.

It has also been battered by several cyclones as climate change drives more extreme weather and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish – which eat the coral – in recent decades.

Additional reporting by Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: beijing denies it is behind bid to sink Great Barrier Reef