Australia has been blindsided by a push by a China-chaired UN committee to declare the Great Barrier Reef “in danger” without proper consultation or scientific process.
Australian government officials learned of the draft World Heritage Committee decision on Friday, despite an assurance just weeks ago from the Paris-based World Heritage Centre that the reef’s health status would not be downgraded.
The decision, which was due to be made public by UNESCO overnight, will be presented for ratification at the 44th meeting of the World Heritage Committee in China from July 16.
The draft decision said the committee noted with “utmost concern” that “despite positive achievements”, progress in protecting the reef had been insufficient in meeting key targets, particularly in relation to water quality.
Australia has expressed its “grave concerns” at the proposed “in danger” listing, which was not backed up by any on-the-ground scientific assessment.
The move comes amid a surge in both Chinese influence and climate activism within the UNESCO system.
Any downgrading of the reef’s status would threaten the 64,000 jobs and $6.4bn in tourism revenue linked to the natural wonder in a normal year.
Australia is a member of the 21-nation World Heritage Committee, but the body – under the chairmanship of China’s Vice-Minister for Education Tian Xuejun – is considered likely to accept the recommendation.
China also holds the position of UNESCO deputy director-general, the presidency of UNESCO’s International Union for Conservation for Nature, and is head of Asia at the World Heritage Centre – all three of which contributed to the World Heritage Committee’s draft decision.
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz has spoken to Sky News about the push among some Coalition MPs who have called on Treasurer Josh Frydenberg impose tougher controls on the Port of Newcastle to protect against Chinese interference.
The proposed listing comes despite Beijing’s destruction of reefs in the South China Sea to create artificial islands for military purposes.
Environmental law groups in Australia and the US have pushed for the Great Barrier Reef to be placed on the “in danger” list, arguing the Morrison government’s climate change policies mean the nation is failing to live up to its responsibilities to the site under the World Heritage Convention. However, the latest push to put the reef on the critical list has bypassed normal World Heritage Committee processes.
In 2014, a similar “in danger” listing proposal was foreshadowed rather than proposed for an immediate decision. That allowed Australia time to develop the Reef 2050 Plan jointly with Queensland, with federal, state and private sector support.
The World Heritage Committee has not visited the reef since 2012, and there has been no mention of an “in danger” listing since 2015.
Australia has told the committee that while climate change is a clear threat to the reef, the government is doing more to improve its long-term health than ever before.
Sky News host Chris Kenny says “concerns are mounting” relating to one of the nation’s most important ports, the Port of Newcastle, given it is half owned by Chinese interests.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2019 Outlook Report acknowledged that climate change was the greatest pressure facing the reef – as it is a pressure facing coral reefs worldwide. It found the “outstanding universal value” of the reef was under pressure but intact.