UNESCO pursues plan to classify Great Barrier Reef as endangered

Fuzhou, China – Despite opposition in Australia, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is pushing ahead with plans to classify the Great Barrier Reef, threatened by climate change, as an endangered natural site, the committee's director Mechtild Roessler said on Sunday.

A sea turtle swims along the Great Barrier Reef.
A sea turtle swims along the Great Barrier Reef.  © IMAGO / Cavan Images

The draft decision by the committee is a proposal to place the site on the list of endangered world heritage, Rossler said during the 44th session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the Chinese city of Fuzhou.

The proposal would be on the agenda on Friday, she said.

The director and the president of the 44th session, China's Vice Minister of Education Tian Xuejun, dismissed speculation that the move was related to political tensions between China and Australia.

"The recommendation is based on the reports and data provided to us by Australia," said Tian Xuejun, who objected to "baseless allegations."

As a result of climate change, the world's largest reef is threatened by warm water and coral bleaching.

To prevent it from being red-listed, the Australian government had invited more than a dozen ambassadors on a snorkeling trip to the reef ahead of the meeting.

Nine of the 15 diplomats were from countries that would have voting rights at the committee's meeting, Australian news agency AAP reported.

The new label is a call to action

The Great Barrier Reef is so big it can be seen from space.
The Great Barrier Reef is so big it can be seen from space.  © IMAGO / Xinhua

The Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia stretches over more than 130,000 square miles, making it larger than Italy. It can be seen with the naked eye from space.

In the UNESCO draft, the World Heritage Committee urges Australia to take action against climate change. It also addresses the quality of the water around the reef, which has been a World Heritage Site since 1981.

The long-term outlook for the natural wonder has gone from "poor" to "very poor."

Climate change and its impact on World Heritage are an important topic at the meeting in Fuzhou. The director of the World Heritage Committee stressed that the idea of the List of Endangered Sites is "a call to action" in which the entire world community should cooperate.

Ernesto Ottone, the UN agency's department head in charge, also said, "That's not about punishment, it's how we preserve our heritage for future generation."

UNESCO committee members also discussed other heritage sites

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan addresses the opening ceremony of the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in Fuzhou.
Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan addresses the opening ceremony of the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in Fuzhou.  © IMAGO / Xinhua

The meeting was postponed a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic and is now being held via a mixture of online and in-person participation.

Decisions on applications for classification as new World Heritage sites are to be made next weekend. There are 1,121 World Heritage sites worldwide.

Currently, 53 World Heritage sites are classified as endangered.

For the first time in the history of the World Heritage Convention, two sites could lose their title at the session.

The Liverpool waterfront, for example, is to be discussed on Sunday because it is threatened by urban development and infrastructure projects called "Liverpool Waters" and a planned football stadium. It has already lost its character that led to its World Heritage designation, a UNESCO document says.

The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, where a dam is to be built, is also due to be discussed on Monday.

Cover photo: IMAGO / Cavan Images

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