The Great Barrier Reef could have its prestigious World Heritage status downgraded after a report from the United Nations said Australia wasn’t doing enough to protect it from the effects of climate change.
Australia, which attracts millions of snorkeling tourists and beachgoers each year, vowed on Tuesday to fight any change of status that could hurt its travel industry or see the U.N. step in to take tougher measures to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.N. World Heritage Committee’s draft report on Monday found that there was “no possible doubt” that the network of colorful corals off Australia’s northeast coast was “facing ascertained danger” due to climate change.
The committee proposed the Great Barrier Reef be added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, a move that could create a monitoring role for UNESCO to put in place “corrective measures” to reduce emissions, which it said are harming the reef and its marine life. The report said such measures would take into account the fact that Australia “on its own cannot address the threats of climate change.”
Any downgrade of the reef’s World Heritage status could also reduce tourism revenue that the natural wonder generates and shake Australians’ national pride, along with confidence in their government’s ability to care for the coral reef ecosystem.
Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley said on Tuesday the country would fight the listing and that she and foreign minister Marise Payne had spoken to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay to express their government’s “strong disappointment” and “bewilderment” at the proposal.
“This is a complete subversion of normal process,” Ley said. “The reef is an icon internationally and we are here to fight for the reef and we are here to challenge the decision.”
Ley said that although she recognized the threat of climate change to the reef, Australia would oppose the listing.
“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” she told reporters.
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However, environmentalists welcomed the U.N. body’s draft decision.
“The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset,” Richard Leck, head of oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia said in a statement.
The listing would also serve as a wake-up call for the country, 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.”
Environmental group Greenpeace Australia Pacific also said the government had to work harder to give the reef a “fighting chance” and take its role as an “environmental custodian seriously,” said spokesperson Martin Zavan.
“The UNESCO warning could not be any clearer, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger,” Zavan said in a statement. “The situation for the reef could easily go from bad to disastrous.”
The world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem — a network of 2,500 reefs covering 348,000 square kilometers — has been World Heritage-listed since 1981 and is held in awe by visitors for its dazzling coral and multicolored fish.
But scientists have repeatedly warned that its health is under increasing threat from climate change and rising ocean temperatures.
The U.N. report found that the site had suffered significantly from coral bleaching and mortality caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures in 2016, 2017 and last year.
“The long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor,” the draft report said, adding that the deterioration “has been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident.”
The final decision, based on the report’s recommendations, will be made in July by the World Heritage Committee and could see the reef added to the list of 53 other sites deemed in danger, in country’s such as Afghanistan and Peru.
Adela Suliman is a London-based reporter for NBC News Digital.
The Associated Press