Saudi Arabia and Bahrain back Australia’s lobbying on the Great Barrier Reef

    15 Jul 2021

    The Guardian unveils that oil-rich nations back push against Unesco recommendation to have reef placed on world heritage ‘in danger list.

    Australia has gained the support of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in its lobbying effort to keep the Great Barrier Reef off a list of world heritage sites in danger.

    The two nations, both members of the 21-country committee, are co-sponsoring amendments seen by the Guardian that back Australia and ask the world heritage committee to push back a key decision until at least 2023.

    In a meeting on Tuesday, July 13, night Australian time, a senior official from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) told Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, during a face-to-face meeting in Paris the organization had followed all necessary steps before recommending the reef be listed as in danger.

    The Morrison government is in the middle of an all-out lobbying effort, hosting ambassadors at the reef while deploying Ley to Europe for a week of meetings.

    The Australian government briefed conservation groups on July 14 about the amendments, saying they were co-sponsored by the two Middle Eastern countries.

    The world heritage committee will begin a 15-day meeting on Friday, July 9 with a decision on the Great Barrier Reef currently scheduled for 23 July.

    In the amendments, the committee is being asked to reject Unesco’s official finding the reef was facing “ascertained danger” – a trigger for entry onto the “in danger” list.

    A Unesco mission would be held to “develop a set of corrective measures” before Australia sends a report to the UN organisation by December 2022, rather than the original February 2022 date.

    Instead of asking the committee to decide next week on the “in danger” inscription, the amendments state that should not be considered until 2023 at the earliest.

    Diplomats from 16 countries and the EU are flying to far north Queensland on Wednesday, July 14 ahead of a snorkelling trip to be hosted by the government’s reef ambassador, MP Warren Entsch, on Thursday.

    David Cazzulino, the Great Barrier Reef campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said Australia was being forced “to find friends with other fossil fuel polluters”.

    “I hope when the ambassadors go to the reef, they get to see its wonderful beauty,” Cazzulino said. “But I hope they also hear the true scientific understanding as we know it.”

    What’s the deal with the Great Barrier Reef

    Unesco’s recommendation for the danger listing was due to a lack of progress on cutting pollution from the land and the impact of three mass coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 – all happening since the world heritage committee last voted on the state of the reef in 2015.

    Unesco says the committee should put the reef on the danger list after rising ocean temperatures caused mass bleaching of corals in 2016, 2017 and 2020. Targets to improve water quality had also not been met, the UN body has said.

    Climate and reef scientists have long warned of the threat to coral reefs from fossil fuel burning, causing ocean temperatures to rise and the water to become less alkaline.

    The amendments retain a request from Unesco that a new version of Australia’s main reef conservation policy – the Reef 2050 plan – “fully incorporates” recommendations from the reef’s management authority “that accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change”.

    Entsch has said he would be accompanied on the snorkelling trip by officials and scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Ambassadors were paying their own airfares, he said on Wednesday.

    Ley met with Ernesto Ottone, an assistant director general at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, on Tuesday night.

    “The questions were mainly on procedural matters,” Unesco said in a statement. “The meeting was an opportunity to reiterate that all steps had been taken according to the rules and to reiterate the different scientific elements that were used to conclude that the reef is in danger.”

    Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF-Australia, was in the briefing delivered by the Australian government on Wednesday. He said the amendments “kick the can down the road on climate action” and would delay improvements to water quality.

    Leck said the Reef 2050 plan had still not been finalised despite it being due in 2020 “and the amendments suggest there won’t be a plan for another 18 months”. “Australians expect much stronger and more urgent progress in protecting the reef, which is why WWF supports the draft decision as it currently stands,” he said.

    The campaigner said it was “concerning” Australia had joined with other fossil fuel dependant countries to “work together to push back action on climate change”.

    The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, wrote to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Tuesday asking him to match more than $2 bn of funding for renewable energy and water quality projects along the 2,300 km reef.

    Palaszczuk wrote that new funding commitments would send a “strong signal” to the committee ahead of the meeting, which starts on Friday. A decision on the reef is currently scheduled for 23 July during the virtual meeting.

    A federal government spokesperson said Ley was “conducting a number of meetings which reflect Australia’s ongoing concern about the draft world heritage listing”.

    “Australia’s position remains that the draft listing process did not include the proper consultation with the relevant ‘state party’ (Australia), was not made on the basis of the latest information and did not follow the proper process,” they said.

    “The minister has had productive discussions with a number of country representatives during the trip to date. Minister Ley is keeping the Queensland government informed of her campaign regarding the listing process.”

    The spokesperson said the Morrison government would work constructively with Queensland “to ensure that our joint efforts under the Reef 2050 plan, along with the latest reef science, are properly considered in any determination the World Heritage Committee makes on the status of the reef”.

    The commonwealth was providing $2.08 bn of the $3.05 bn funding under the Reef 2050 plan and was “committed to ongoing funding strategies to protect the reef and its world heritage status”.

    Australia to host ambassadors at Great Barrier Reef ahead of ‘in danger’ list vote

    Ambassadors from more than a dozen countries will fly to the Great Barrier Reef for a snorkelling trip on Thursday as part of the Morrison government’s lobbying campaign to keep the ocean jewel off the world heritage in danger list, The Guardian reports.

    The government’s official reef ambassador, Warren Entsch, will host the Canberra-based diplomatic group which, he said, included nine countries with voting rights at the upcoming world heritage committee meeting. Entsch said on Wednesday the diplomats were paying their own airfare.

    Australia has launched an all-out lobbying offensive against a recommendation from Unesco to place the reef on the world heritage in danger list.

    The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, is in Europe for a week of meetings to try and convince countries to vote against the “in danger” recommendation.

    Entsch said 16 countries and the European Union had accepted an invitation from the government and would visit Agincourt Reef on a trip from Port Douglas, north of Cairns.

    Scientists and officials from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority would accompany the ambassadors, Entsch said, as well as tourism figures. Indigenous rangers would also be on board.

    “They will cover the whole ambit of the challenges [to the reef], as they should,” he said. “It is critically important that when other countries are out there judging our performance, it’s important their representatives in Australia can travel up and get first hand information.”

    Among the countries Entsch said had accepted the invitation were Russia, Bahrain, Hungary, Brazil, Spain and Guatemala – all countries on the 21-member world heritage committee, chaired by China.

    Entsch, who would not be going into the water for temporary health reasons, said: “It’s important countries that are voting on this need to be able to say they have put their head under the water and have spoken to world experts. Then they can make their own decision. This is good practice and this is what should be happening.”

    Rising ocean temperatures caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning have driven mass bleaching across the reef. Aims has said the reef is showing signs of recovery after benign conditions since the last bleaching event in 2020.

    Entsch said Australia alone could not stop coral bleaching, which would need actions from bigger economies including China, India and the United States.

    He revealed he had “booked a ticket” for the international climate talks to be held in Glasgow in November.

    He feared an “in danger” listing would send a negative signal to scientists and landholders working to improve conditions that there was “no point” in their work.

    Ley told a briefing of ambassadors in Canberra last week that Australia wanted Unesco to carry out a monitoring mission on the reef before it made any recommendation about an “in danger” listing.

    Unesco has said a monitoring mission is not always required before a recommendation for the list is made. The UN body says the “in danger” list should be seen as a chance to rally the world to the plight of the reef and to encourage action to reduce fossil fuel use.

    Queensland’s environment and reef minister, Meaghan Scanlon, told Guardian Australia she was disappointed to only learn of the ambassador trip on Tuesday morning, and said the state government was hoping to be able to be represented.

    In a letter to Morrison, Palaszczuk wrote she was “extremely concerned” about the impact on jobs if the 21-country world heritage committee placed the reef on its “in danger” list.

    To help avert an “in danger” listing, she said the Morrison government should match her own government’s funding to improve water quality and build more renewable energy.

    The letter lists four demands, including federal support to match state funding of $270m for water quality projects and $2bn for renewable energy projects.

    Scanlon said the reef had avoided an “in danger” listing in 2015 after the state and federal governments had shown commitments through a joint policy – the Reef 2050 plan. A similar effort was needed now, she said.

    That policy is currently being reviewed, and Unesco has said it wants to see a new version that “fully incorporates” recommendations from the reef’s management authority “that accelerated action at all possible levels is required to address the threat from climate change”.

    Scanlon said: “Clearly we all want to go to the international community with a united position and we all want to keep the reef off the in danger list.”

    “But we have a different view on the scale of ambition to show we are taking the concerns and the science seriously.”

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