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Ramp up targets to save reef, UNESCO tells Australia

The Great Barrier Reef needs urgent and sustained action to save it from the impact of climate change and other threats, UNESCO has told Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef needs urgent and sustained action to save it from the impact of climate change and other threats, UNESCO has told Australia. Photo: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority/AP

A United Nations body has told Australia to ramp up its climate change targets and get serious about land clearing if it wants to save the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia has been given another reprieve after UNESCO recommended the World Heritage-listed reef be left off the in-danger list for now.

But it’s warned Australia must pursue urgent, sustained action on key threats, including more ambitious action on climate change after the reef’s fifth mass bleaching event in eight years.

“The State Party should be urged to set more ambitious emission reduction targets consistent with limiting global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” UNESCO said in a draft decision released early on Tuesday.

“It is clear that the property remains under serious threat, and urgent and sustained action is of utmost priority in order to improve the resilience of the property in a rapidly changing climate.”

The draft decision will inform the World Heritage Committee when it meets in July to formally consider the matter of an in-danger listing.

UNESCO also pointed to ongoing water quality problems, saying land clearing in reef catchments remained a major issue, with tougher laws needed.

“High levels of land clearing are incompatible with the objectives set out to reverse poor water quality.”

Australia will have to provide another progress report on its management efforts in February next year, and again in February 2026 after which the World Heritage Committee “could consider the inclusion of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger”.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the draft decision was a “huge win” for Queensland, jobs and nature.

“I feel enormously relieved because, of course, there’s tens of thousands of jobs that rely on the Great Barrier Reef, for tourism in particular,” she told Nine’s Today program.

“This is also a really strong acknowledgement of the effort and, of course, the money that Australia has put into protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

UNESCO did acknowledge the money being spent on reef resilience and the progress made in some areas, including the phasing out of gillnet fishing.

But the Australian Marine Conservation Society said no one should be relieved, pointing to UNESCO’s sobering comments about climate change and other enduring reef threats.

“They are clearly saying to Australia ‘your current target is not aligned with 1.5C’ and that’s what scientists have been saying,” reef campaigner Lissa Schindler said.

“Their target is aligned with 2C and that’s the end of coral reefs worldwide.

“Expressing relief is surprising.”

Schindler also pointed to UNESCO’s commentary about land clearing, which remains significant despite some progress to drive down the rate of vegetation loss.

A recent report by the federal and Queensland governments found 47,519 hectares of land was cleared in reef catchments in the four years to 2021, undermining the impact of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on water quality programs.

The same report also found there has been poor progress on two key water quality threats driven by agriculture: dissolved inorganic nitrogen from fertiliser use and sediment loads.

“It’s pretty clear the Great Barrier Reef is under extreme pressure and UNESCO’s response echoes that, and the concerns of everyone around the world,” Schindler said.

“The reef is in trouble.”

– AAP

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