Will the UN World Heritage Committee give Australia one more chance to save the Reef?

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Feature Story - 16 June, 2013
World leaders are meeting this fortnight to decide how our government is tracking on its promise to save the Great Barrier Reef from spiralling coal exports.

Save the Reef

For the last two years, the international community has been expressing growing concern about the way Australia is managing the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is protected under the World Heritage Convention – an international agreement that aims to protect the earth’s most outstanding natural and cultural treasures for future generations.

The Convention is overseen by the World Heritage Committee, which is made up of representatives from 21 countries around the world. The World Heritage Committee is meeting in Cambodia this fortnight, and once again, the status of the Great Barrier Reef is on their agenda.

Will the Reef be declared “in danger”?

Over the last two years, the Committee has made a series of recommendations to Australia setting out what needs to be done to better protect the reef from the triple threats of coastal development, poor water quality, and climate change. 

In Cambodia, the Committee will be taking a close look at Australia’s record during the last 12 months, and deciding what further action the international community will take to protect a place that is loved by people around the world. The last resort is to list the Reef as “in danger” of being removed from the World Heritage list, if its outstanding values are under imminent threat.

Another key player is the United Nations Environment Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which has day-to-day responsibility for managing World Heritage issues. A month ago, UNESCO presented the Committee members with their advice about Australia’s performance in acting to protect the Reef.

It’s clear that UNESCO thinks not enough has been done, saying “overall progress remains limited”. Once again, they call on Australia to “halt the approval of coastal development projects that could individually or cumulatively impact on the property’s outstanding universal value”.

But despite all this, it’s unlikely that the Reef will be listed as “in danger” this year.  Australia is likely to get one more chance, and another year to take decisive action before the Reef is added to the official list of ‘World Heritage in Danger’.

Why we can’t afford to continue with ‘business as usual’

The question for us all is: will we use that chance to get serious about protecting the Reef, or will it be business as usual? A key test will be whether Australia approves more coal development at Abbot Point, near Bowen in north Queensland. Three more coal terminals are proposed at Abbot Point and just two weeks after the Committee’s meeting our Environment Minister Tony Burke must decide whether to allow the port developers to dredge a new shipping channel and dump 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  

The coal industry is demanding too much of Australia in asking us to let them develop the Great Barrier Reef, in asking us to accept the impacts of global warming as a necessary cost of their business agenda. We are standing up to save Abbot Point and the Reef from coal development.

Sign our emergency petition to Tony Burke today

We’ve also put together this quick timeline on what world leaders have done to protect the Great Barrier Reef in recent years:

2010 - The Australian Government allows the construction of a huge gas export facility on Curtis Island near Gladstone in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.

2011 - The World Heritage Committee expresses alarm about the impacts of the gas hub developments on Curtis Island, and asks Australia to:

-        conduct a Strategic Assessment of the Reef,

-        accept a visit from a monitoring mission from UNESCO, and

-        inform the Committee about “any new development that may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property before making decisions that would be difficult to reverse.”

March 2012 – The World Heritage Monitoring Mission visits Australia and compiles an alarming report about the state of the Reef and the scale of coastal development, particularly for coal and gas exports, proposed.

The report concludes that “should some of the most threatening developments proceed further towards consent, it is recommended that the World Heritage Committee considers the possibility of listing the property as being in danger.”

June 2012 – Once again, the World Heritage Committee discusses the state of the Reef and requests that Australia “ensure that development is not permitted if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.”

The Committee puts Australia on notice that if not enough action is taken to address these serious threats to the Reef by June 2013, the Committee will consider putting the Reef on the list of World Heritage sites that are “in danger”.

October 2012 - Environment Minister Tony Burke approves the “T3” coal terminal at Abbot Point, in the World Heritage Area.