The Great Barrier Reef will not be placed on a list of world heritage sites “in danger” after a global lobbying effort from Australia against the proposed listing.
The 21-country World Heritage Committee on Friday ignored a scientific assessment from the UN’s science and culture organisation, Unesco, that the reef was clearly in danger from climate change and so should be placed on the list.
Unesco will instead be asked to carry out a mission to the 2,300km reef in the coming months and Australia will need to send a progress report to the agency by February 2022 – earlier than a December 2022 deadline it had asked for.
Environment groups said the decision was a victory for cynical lobbying and that Australia, as custodians of the world’s biggest coral reef, was now on probation.
Ahead of Friday’s meeting, the Australian government had conducted a fierce campaign to block the danger listing. More than a dozen ambassadors flew from Canberra to Cairns, Queensland, for a snorkelling trip on the reef.
Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, was dispatched to Europe on an RAAF diplomatic jet to visit Budapest, Madrid, Sarajevo, Paris, Oman and the Maldives.
Australia – a major producer and exporter of coal and gas – initially won support from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both members of the committee, to delay any decision on the danger listing until at least 2023.
But after an interjection from Norway, the committee decided instead the reef’s health would be considered again at next year’s meeting.
A document tabled to the committee earlier this week showed other members of the committee supporting Australia were Saint Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mali, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Spain.
Ley said the committee’s backing of Australia would give “reef managers, marine scientists and land managers” a chance to show their “outstanding work”.
“Our concern was always that Unesco had sought an immediate ‘in danger listing’ without appropriate consultation, without a site visit and without all the latest information, and it is clear that this process has concerned not only Australia but other nations as well,” she said.
Fellow Liberal party member and NSW state environment minister, Matt Kean, wrote on Twitter: “Political lobbying does not change the science.”
Labor’s federal environment spokesperson, Terri Butler, said Australia had a “temporary reprieve” and the Morrison government must “dramatically lift their game” on protecting the reef.
Unesco’s call was the first time a world heritage site had been recommended to be placed on the “in danger” list primarily because of the effects of climate heating.
During the Friday meeting, Unesco and its advisors re-iterated that the criteria to place the reef on the “in danger” list had clearly been met.
Dr Fanny Douvere, head of the marine program at Unesco, said the committee had acknowledged the reef was in danger from climate change. “The facts are the facts and the science is the science. The committee supported the science but did not support the ‘in danger’ listing,” she said.
Imogen Zethoven, a world heritage consultant working for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said: “This is not a win for the Morrison government. The pressure is now on to report back by February next year on how they’re responding to climate change and the poor results on water quality.”
Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF Australia, said: Australia had a much shorter window than they were asking for to improve their climate change policies and their efforts to reduce water pollution. “The Australian government is on probation,” he said.
The Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive, David Ritter, said under the world heritage convention “the Australian government promised the world it would do its utmost to protect the reef – instead it has done its utmost to hide the truth.”
“This is a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history. This is not an achievement – it is a day of infamy for the Australian government,” Ritter said.
The Greens healthy oceans spokesperson, senator Peter Whish-Wilson, said instead of showing global leadership the Coalition “threw its energy behind undermining global action on reducing fossil fuel emissions”.
Ley had previously claimed Australia was “blindsided” and she accused Unesco of allowing the decision to be politicised. The minister argued the agency should have visited the reef before making the recommendation.
Unesco rejected those accusations in public statements and in a face-to-face meeting with Ley in Paris and said the “in danger” recommendation should have been seen as a global call to action for the reef.
Environment groups in Australia were united in backing the “in danger” call, alongside a group of celebrities and prominent figures including UK actor and activist Joanna Lumley, Aquaman actor Jason Momoa and Prince Albert of Monaco.