Australia has warned that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) risks eroding its own credibility if it pushes forward with a proposal to put the Great Barrier Reef on its list of “at risk”.
Warren Entsch, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef envoy, said he hoped the UN World Heritage Committee would reverse a draft decision last month following a frenetic lobbying campaign by Canberra ahead of a vote scheduled for Friday.
UN officials say the move is aimed at taking action to protect a living structure stretching 2,300km along Australia’s east coast that has been damaged by climate change and coastal development.
But the debate over its Unesco status has become a frontline battle between Australia’s Conservative government, a climate policy laggard who has yet to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, and environmentalists.
It has also raised concerns in Canberra about Beijing’s influence on international bodies, as the committee is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s Vice Minister of Education.
Canberra has spared no expense in trying to influence the 21 country commission. Last week it sent its environment minister on a lobby tour of Europe.
Entsch even invited foreign ambassadors — including nine from countries with committee seats — on a snorkeling trip to educate them about reef health.
“We showed the ambassadors areas affected by coral bleaching and they were amazed at the regrowth and the diversity of the coral,” he said.
“Unesco plays an important role and if it wants to maintain its credibility, it must follow its own protocols.”
Australia appears to have gained the support of 12 countries for an amendment that would delay an “at risk” list until at least 2023. But this will depend on the final vote.
But scientists and environmental groups warn that Canberra’s aggressive lobby risks further politicizing the world heritage protection system. They add that trying to shift focus to China, with leaks to Australian media suggesting Tian influenced the commission to target Canberra, is part of a diplomatic spat between the countries and a distraction.
“The mention ‘at risk’ has nothing to do with China,” said Charlie Veron, a marine scientist who has cataloged and named about a fifth of the world’s coral species.
“This is about the government’s reluctance to take responsibility for anything related to climate change, be it the plight of the Great Barrier Reef or the recent bushfires.”
Tian said this week that the draft decision was based on scientific data submitted to the committee by the Australian authorities.
This includes a 2019 report from the Australian government agency that manages the reef, which concluded it had a very poor outlook following multiple coral bleaching events linked to rising water temperatures.
Tian told reporters on Sunday that Australia should give importance to the advice of the advisory bodies and fulfill its duty of world heritage protection rather than making “baseless accusations” against other states.
Canberra argues that adding the reef to the list does not recognize its efforts to restore coral health and risks damaging the international reputation of a natural wonder. The reef provides 64,000 jobs and contributes A$6 billion ($4.4 billion) to the Australian economy, according to a recent report.
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“The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. Billions of dollars are still being spent on it and there has been a lot of work from various stakeholders,” said Entsch.
He added that it was regrettable that UNESCO had prioritized Australia’s climate policy, while he would like to see its own government accelerate its goal of net zero by 2050.
“My concern is that the ‘at risk’ list would suggest that all the efforts made so far to protect the reef are worth absolutely nothing and stakeholders would say, ‘Why are we making the effort?'” he said. .
Most scientists and environmentalists disagree, saying the Australian position smells like hypocrisy.
“A highly scientifically driven process is manipulated and presented as a political process when it clearly isn’t,” said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF, the conservation group.
“There is a real irony in the Australian government making an accusation that the commission was ‘politically motivated’ and then engaged in frenzied political lobbying for the past three weeks.”