A dozen countries have accused the Australian government of trying to put a stop to a process that could still lead to the Great Barrier Reef being inscribed on a list of “endangered” World Heritage sites.
But a global climate change policy to guide how more than 190 countries cope with the crisis affecting some of the world’s most special places, could not be agreed at a major international meeting in Paris.
During the general assembly meeting of the United Nations World Heritage Convention – a treaty signed by more than 190 countries to protect the most special places on Earth – Australia raised concerns that if sites were to be placed on the “endangered” list, they could stay there forever.
Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed that Australia was pushing against a section of the new climate policy that called on countries to adopt national measures that explicitly kept global heating at 1.5C. Australia preferred a more generic language.
Unesco recommended earlier this year that the reef be placed on a list of “endangered” World Heritage sites – the first time a site would be on the list mainly due to the impacts of climate change.
Corals bleached en masse on the world’s largest reef system in 2016, 2017 and 2020 as a result of events caused by rising ocean temperatures due to global warming.
Intensive lobbying from Australia has delayed the “endangered” listing, a decision to be considered again at a meeting in Russia in June next year.
Australian government representative James Larsen told the general assembly on Saturday that climate change needed to be addressed and a new policy was “long overdue.”
But he said: “What is the road in particular disabled the “endangered” list for a single good if the dangers concerned are global changes that require global solutions?
“Are we going to accept a future where a large chunk of properties will permanently languish on the ‘endangered list’ with no deliverable resolution by the concerned state party?” Said Larsen, who is deputy secretary of the environment department.
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, countries could not agree on the new policy and instead agreed to develop a working group.
At this point, Australia – supported by Japan and Poland – asked the assembly to agree to formally note “the advisability of avoiding decisions that would otherwise prejudge the results” of these deliberations.
The representative of Norway, Eva Hauge Fontaine, said Australia’s request was “highly inappropriate”, saying the proposed wording would have suspended the process of inscribing sites on the list of World Heritage “in danger”.
But Larsen told the meeting that was not Australia’s intention and that the language would not have prevented the sites from being placed on the endangered sites list.
The appeal failed to convince a dozen countries which succeeded in having the Australian paragraph deleted.
Led by Palestine and Norway, the other countries opposed to Australia were Iran, China, France, Russia, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, Thailand and Belgium.
Imogen Zethoven, World Heritage Advisor to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said: “The Morrison government has tried to water down Unesco’s climate change policy to ensure that it is not. not required to take action against climate change to protect the Great Barrier Reef. It failed.
“The failure of the Morrison government’s amendments at the general assembly means the World Heritage Committee can call on Australia for ambitious 1.5 ° C compliant climate action to help protect the future of the reef. The government was trying to make sure that did not happen.
Since then, Unesco has discovered that about a third of all sites listed for their natural importance are threatened by the impacts of global warming, such as rising temperatures, sea levels and extreme weather events.
The Australian government has said the World Heritage convention should not be used as a mechanism to encourage countries to take action on climate change, and that this should be left to the UN climate treaty.
UN science advisers are due to visit the Great Barrier Reef as part of a monitoring mission, then produce a report for consideration at the meeting in Russia next year.
A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Australia wanted a consistent approach for sites affected by climate change “that don’t see one isolated site while others are affected as well” .
He said Australia had successfully proposed a working group with an expert group to review climate policy in time for the next general assembly in 2023.