Scientists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) took part in a 10-day mission to the reef in March, and, in a new report released on Monday, concluded that action to save the site must be undertaken with the “utmost urgency”.
The scientists pointed out that the world’s largest reef is under threat because of the climate crisis.
Frequent bleaching events, including four over the last seven years, are threatening the coral ecosystem, which was added to the World Heritage list in 1981.
The reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures, which cause corals to expel the colourful algae living in their tissues and turn white. Corals can survive bleaching events, but they affect their growth and reproduction.
“The mission team concludes that the property is faced with major threats that could have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics, and therefore meets the criteria for inscription on the list of World Heritage in danger,” said the Unesco report, adding: “The resilience of the [reef] to recover from climate change impacts is substantially compromised.”
The report suggested that the Australian government and Queensland’s regional authorities should adopt more ambitious emissions-reduction targets, in line with the global effort to limit future warming to 1.5C.
Federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek, however, argued on Tuesday that the report had unfairly put a spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.
Canberra had previously lobbied against moving the reef – a major tourist attraction that contributes nearly AU$6.4bn (£3.6bn) to Australia’s economy – onto the endangered list. Last year, Australia dodged an “in danger” listing for the reef after lobbying by the Scott Morrison government led Unesco to postpone a decision until 2022.
“We’ll clearly make the point to Unesco that there is no need to single the Great Barrier Reef out in this way,” Ms Plibersek told reporters. “If the Great Barrier Reef is in danger, then every coral reef in the world is in danger. If this World Heritage site is in danger, then most World Heritage sites around the world are in danger from climate change,” she said.
“The reason that Unesco in the past has singled out a place as at risk is because they wanted to see greater government investment, or greater government action, and since the change of government, both of those things have happened.”
Ms Plibersek said her government had also committed AU$1.2bn (£670m) to care for the reef, and had called off the previous government’s plans to build two dams in Queensland that could have affected it.