By Colin Packham and Benjamin Cooper
SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United Nations cultural body UNESCO has voted to leave the Great Barrier Reef off its “in danger” list despite recent widespread destruction of the World Heritage Site.
The decision, which was taken at a UNESCO committee meeting in the Polish city of Krakow, allows Australia’s conservative government to dodge political embarrassment and potential damage to the country’s lucrative tourism industry,
“We’re taking every action possible to ensure this great wonder of the world stays viable and healthy for future generations to come,” Australia’s Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg told Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio.
Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef has come under sustained criticism amid the biggest ever coral die-off as a result of the strongest El Nino in 20 years, a weather event that scientists believe is exacerbated by climate change.
Eager to head-off charges that it was failing the World Heritage Site, which was recently pegged at being worth $56 billon to Australia, the Coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull lobbied all 21 UNESCO members.
Australia’s commitment to tackling climate change has been questioned by the government’s lingering love affair with fossil fuels. Coal is the country’s second-biggest export earner and the government is supporting a new $4 billion mine planned by Adani Enterprises which would ship millions of tonnes of coal through the waterways of the Great Barrier Reef.
Adani’s Abbot Point terminal, located adjacent to the reef, would also need to be expanded to accommodate all the extra traffic. This, environmentalists claim, would release plumes of soil and debris over the reef, causing damage to its ecosystem.
“An endangerment listing, as tragic as that would be, would be a more realistic representation of the state of reef and would at least force the federal government to act on climate change,” said Alix Foster Vander Elst, Greenpeace Australia Pacific campaigner.
Despite endorsing Australia’s management plan, the World Heritage Committee did express “serious concern” about the health of the reef.
It urged Australia to accelerate its efforts to improve water quality, describing it as “essential to the overall resilience of the property”.
(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)