Australia accused of trying to block UNESCO process that could put Great Barrier Reef on a danger list | Great Barrier Reef

A dozen countries have accused the Australian government of trying to pause a process that could still lead to the Great Barrier Reef being placed on a World Heritage List “at risk”.

But a global climate change policy to guide how more than 190 countries are dealing with the crisis affecting some of the world’s most special places could not agree on a major international meeting in Paris.

At the UN General Assembly Convention – a treaty signed by more than 190 countries to protect the most special places on Earth – Australia raised fears if places were placed on the “at risk” list, they could stay there forever.

Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed that Australia was lobbying against part of the new climate policy, which asked countries to adopt domestic measures that explicitly kept global warming to 1.5 C. Australia preferred more generic language.

Unesco recommended earlier this year that the reef be placed on a list of World Heritage Sites “at risk” – the first time a site would have been added to the list, primarily due to the effects of climate change.

Corals bleached en masse across the world’s largest reef system in 2016, 2017 and 2020 in events caused by rising sea temperatures driven by global warming.

Intensive lobbying from Australia delayed the listing “in jeopardy”, with a decision to be reconsidered at a meeting in Russia in June next year.

On Saturday, Australia’s Environmental Ambassador Jamie Isbister said the General Assembly was to address climate change and that a new policy was “the way forward”.

But he said: “What is the route in particular of the list of ‘at risk’ for a single property if those dangers are global developments that require global solutions?

“Should we accept a future where a large part of the properties have to disappear permanently on the list of ‘in danger’ without any solution that can be provided by that state?”

More than 190 countries have signed the World Heritage Convention, but its climate change policy has not been updated since its adoption in 2007.

Due to the large number of changes proposed by Australia and others, the countries could not agree on the new policy and instead agreed to develop a working group.

At this point, Australia – backed by Japan and Poland – asked the Assembly to agree to officially note the “desirability of avoiding decisions that would otherwise prejudge the outcome” of these considerations.

Norway’s representative Eva Hauge Fontaine said Australia’s request was “very inappropriate” and said the language proposed would have suspended the process of “endangering” World Heritage sites.

But Isbister told the meeting that it was not Australia’s intention and the language would not have prevented sites from being placed on the list of at risk.

The appeal did not convince a dozen countries that successfully pushed for Australia’s clause to be deleted.

Led by Palestine and Norway, the other countries were against Australia, Iran, China, France, Russia, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Thailand and Belgium.

Imogen Zethoven, a World Heritage Conservation Adviser to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said: “The Morrison Government sought to dilute UNESCO’s climate change policy to ensure that climate change was not necessary to protect the Great Barrier Reef. It failed.

“The failure of the Morrison Government’s amendment to the General Assembly means that the World Heritage Committee can request Australia’s ambitious climate action in line with 1.5 C degrees to help protect the future of the reef. The government tried to ensure that this could not happen.”

Since then, Unesco has found that about a third of all sites listed for their natural significance are threatened by global warming, such as rising temperatures, sea levels and extreme weather events.

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The Australian Government has said that the World Heritage Convention should not be used as a mechanism to encourage countries to act on climate change and that this should be left to the UN Climate Change Treaty.

UN science advisers are due to visit the Great Barrier Reef on a monitoring mission and then prepare a report to be considered at Russia’s meeting next year.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Australia wanted a consistent approach to places affected by climate change, “not seeing one place separated when others are equally affected”.

He said Australia had successfully proposed a working group with an expert panel to look at climate policy in time for the next General Assembly in 2023.

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