The United Nations on Tuesday warned in a report that the Great Barrier Reef should be designated an endangered World Heritage site, a move that drew surprise and anger from the Australian government.
The recommendation comes from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and cites a deterioration of the world’s largest coral reef due to climate change.
The vote to include the reef on the “in danger” list will take place next month when the committee meets in China.
The Great Barrier Reef is composed of almost 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands that span about 1,400 miles over 215,000 square miles in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
“The long-term outlook for the ecosystem of the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor, and that the deterioration has been more rapid and widespread than was evident during the period 2009-2014,” the 208-page UNESCO report states.
“The [reef] has also suffered significantly from coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and most recently in 2020, as a result of global warming.”
The report notes that key biodiversity and water quality targets around the reef have also not been met.
The Great Barrier Reef was designated a World Heritage site in 1981. UNESCO considered adding it to the “in danger” list three years ago. At the time, UNESCO acknowledged Australian plans to protect the site but noted that progress was slow.
The Australian government has spent billions to date to protect the unique reef system. Six years ago, it announced the Reef 2050 Plan — partly to avoid landing on UNESCO’s “in danger” list.
Tuesday, officials in Canberra condemned the U.N. report’s recommendation.
Australian environmental minister Sussan Ley said UNESCO “backflipped” against its own promise that the reef would not be declared endangered.
“The Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the world and this draft recommendation has been made without examining the reef first hand, and without the latest information,” she said in a statement.
“I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs, but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best-managed reef in the world for an ‘in danger’ listing.”
Ley also said the government will contest the “flawed approach” that she argued was taken “without adequate consultation.”
“This sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making investments in reef protection that we are making,” she added.
An updated Reef 2050 Plan is expected later this year.