UNESCO’s assessment of the Great Barrier Reef: is the Reef ‘in danger’?

Coral reef underwater ocean photo
Photograph by Peter David

This is the question that the 21 member countries of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee (the Committee) will examine at its 45th Session, currently due to be held from 19–30 June 2022 in Kazan, Russia. The Committee’s determination of whether the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) should be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger will be based on an updated ‘State Party’ report from the Australian Government and a State of Conservation report to be prepared by two scientific officials (p. 58) who visited the GBR last month.

The UNESCO monitoring visit from 21-30 March 2022 coincided with confirmation that the GBR was experiencing another mass coral bleaching event. This is the fourth mass bleaching in the last six years, including unprecedented back-to-back events in 2016 and 2017.

What does it mean to be ‘in danger’?

Section IV.B of The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention describes the process for listing of World Heritage properties as being ‘in danger’. A natural property, such as the GBR, can be moved to the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ (the List) when its condition meets at least one of the criteria under:

  • ‘ascertained danger’, where ‘the property is faced with specific and proven imminent danger’, or
  • ‘potential danger’ where ‘the property is faced with major threats which could have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics’ (paragraph 180).

A decision to inscribe a property on the List requires a two-thirds majority of the Committee members present and voting (paragraph 186). Once inscribed on the List, the Committee will establish a program of corrective action for the property to propose to the State party. The Committee then reviews the State of Conservation of the property annually and can take one of three courses of action: (i) request additional conservation measures; (ii) remove the property from the List if it is no longer deemed to be under threat; (iii) remove the property’s World Heritage List status (paragraph 190-1).

At the time of writing, 52 World Heritage properties are on the List, 16 of which are natural properties.

The GBR’s first brushes with ‘danger’

At the Committee’s 35th Session in 2011 (Decision 35 COM 7B.10), UNESCO officials were asked to undertake a reactive monitoring mission to assess the state of conservation of the GBR. Their 2012 report stated:

'The mission considers that the property does not currently meet the requirements for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger, but risks meeting those requirements if remedial measures are not undertaken. The mission notes that development pressures, reduction in water quality, and climate change are clearly impacting on the values of the property.' (p. 5)

At its 39th Session in 2015, the Committee noted (Decision 39 COM 7B.7):

'with concern the conclusion of the 2014 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report that the overall Outlook for the property is poor, and that climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal development are major threats to the property’s health and regrets that key habitats, species and ecosystem processes in the central and southern inshore areas have continued to deteriorate from the cumulative effects of these impacts.'

As a result, the Committee set a target of reviewing the state of conservation of the GBR in five years’ time at its 44th Session in 2020 (subsequently postponed to 2021 due to impacts of Covid-19).

A one-year reprieve

At its 44th Session the Committee reviewed a number of pieces of evidence (pp. 83-5), including a State of Conservation report from UNESCO officials, a State Party report from the Australian Government, the findings of GBRMPA’s 2019 Outlook Report, and Reef Water Quality Report Cards (2017 and 2018, and 2019). The State of Conservation report recommended to the Committee (p. 85) that the GBR be added to the list of properties ‘in danger’, noting the explicit threats of climate change and water quality. According to the report:

'In the five years following [the 2015] Decision [39 COM 7B.7], both the current condition and the long-term outlook for the property have deteriorated. Therefore, there is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger.'

The Committee did not make the ‘in danger’ listing but advised it would reassess its decision after one year (p. 186), noting:

'with the utmost concern and regret the conclusions of the 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report (2019 GBR Outlook Report) that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor, that the deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property has been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident, and that the property has suffered significantly from mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020.'

The Committee urged the Australian Government:

'to urgently create opportunities for recovery of the property, in particular with regard to water quality.'

The Committee also requested that the Australian Government submit an updated report on the state of conservation of the GBR and invite a monitoring mission in 2022 to conduct a reassessment of the Reef (pp. 186-7).

On 3 February 2022, the Government submitted its updated State Party report which contends that the ‘Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef remains intact across all 4 natural World Heritage criteria for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List’ (p. 4). The Government also pointed to the prioritisation of an additional investment in water quality initiatives within the $1 billion GBR funding package announced in January 2022 (discussed in a Parliamentary Library Budget review).

At Senate Estimates on 31 March 2022, the status of the 2020 Reef Water Quality Report Card was discussed, with officials noting that the timing of its public release was a matter for the Government (p. 64).

With the completion of the UNESCO visit last month, the two requests from 2021 have been met, setting the stage for re-examination of GBR’s status by a World Heritage Committee that includes 12 new member countries. The GBR’s latest mass bleaching event will no doubt add further complexities to the upcoming deliberations.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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