POLITICS

Great Barrier Reef Not 'In Danger' Despite Widespread Bleaching

No global shaming but UNESCO asks the Turnbull Government to do more for the reef.

06/07/2017 10:44 AM AEST | Updated 06/07/2017 11:02 AM AEST
AP Photo/Brain Cassey, File
UNESCO has requested Australia accelerate efforts to improve the Great Barrier Reef's water quality.

CANBERRA -- Despite 1500km of coral left bleached, and the dire warnings of scientists and environment groups, the United Nations has ruled that the Great Barrier Reef is not "in danger".

The overnight decision by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Poland has been claimed as a "big win for Australia" by Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, avoiding the international shaming of a new listing and effectively ticking off the Turnbull and Queensland Government's Reef 2050 management plan.

"We've received a strong endorsement that our Reef 2050 Plan ... on enhancing the resilience of the reef is working," the Minister told ABC Radio.

"We are reducing the nitrogen and the sediment run off, we are tackling crown of thorns starfish which is a natural predator to the coral and we are taking every action possible to ensure this great wonder of the world stays viable and healthy for future generations to come."

But environmental groups, including Greenpeace, have rejected the result as bad for the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms, saying the Reef 2050 strategy is inadequate and won't work as it does not address climate change.

"The Australian public has every right to feel betrayed by the Australian government," Greenpeace campaigner, Alix Foster Vander Elst told HuffPost Australia.

"Climate change needs to be addressed if the reef is to be protected.

"The Australian Government needs to stop investing in fossil fuels, to have a moratorium on new coal mines and start looking to renewable energy if it has any hope of protecting the Great Barrier Reef."

While saying it is not "in danger", UNESCO's World Heritage Committee has expressed "serious concern" about its health.

In its ruling, the Committee -- along with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an advisory body -- found that the 2050 Reef Plan had to be accelerated to make certain the intermediate and long-term targets are met, "particularly regarding water quality".

The Committee also noted that important Queensland legislation regulating land clearing had not passed parliament.

Earlier this year, Australian researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies were expecting high levels of coral death across much of the Great Barrier Reef after discovering -- through aerial surveys -- back-to-back bleaching that stretched for 1,500 km, leaving only the southern third unscathed.

They stated the bleaching had not been caused by El Niño, rather record-breaking temperatures driven by global warming.

Severe mass bleaching events have now been recorded for the Reef four times: 1998, 2002, 2016, and now in 2017.

As well, the Turnbull and Queensland Governments gave the reef a "poor", or "D", rating for health in an annual report card released last October.

The Environment Minister will meet with his Queensland counterpart Steven Miles next week to discuss the decision and how to improve water quality further.

"We will seek the advice of our independent scientific expert panel," Frydenberg said. "There is a lag when investments are made and when the results are seen."

If the Great Barrier Reef has been added to UNESCO's "in danger" list, it would not have led to any enforceable action, but it would have been a very public listing and potentially affected tourism.

Such a listing may have prompted the Government to take further action or be granted help to protect the site as a place of outstanding world heritage values.

The Federal Government will have to report back on the reef's progress in 2019, perhaps after the next election.

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