Press release | 23 Jul, 2021

IUCN’s call for action on fast-deteriorating Great Barrier Reef backed, despite no danger listing

Gland, Switzerland, 23 July 2021 (IUCN) – IUCN’s call for urgent action to address impacts from climate change and poor water quality affecting the Great Barrier Reef has been adopted by the World Heritage Committee in its decision today, despite the reef not being included on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

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Photo: Célia Zwahlen

“The extent to which climate change has damaged the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef is unprecedented, and there is a significant risk that areas of the reef repeatedly affected by bleaching may not be able to recover,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme“We must redouble efforts both at global, national and local levels to address the significant threats the reef is facing from climate change, poor water quality and other pressures. We stand ready to help Australia reinforce its actions to conserve this most iconic site for future generations.”

The World Heritage Committee has requested Australia to invite a mission by IUCN and UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre to the Great Barrier Reef. The mission will aim to ensure that Australia’s revised Reef 2050 Plan delivers the action needed on all the threats to the Reef, particularly climate change and water quality. Its findings and recommendations will be reviewed at the next session of the World Heritage Committee in 2022.

According to IUCN – the Committee’s official advisor on nature – both the current condition and the long-term outlook of the Great Barrier Reef have further deteriorated, despite major efforts by Australia to implement its Reef 2050 Plan. The Committee noted this in today’s decision, which highlighted the unprecedented speed and scale of damage caused by coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020 that have affected two thirds of the site. Other threats, particularly poor water quality, have further impaired the reef’s ability to recover.

Impacts from climate change are increasing the world over and are likely to cause more damage to natural World Heritage in the near future – especially as other threats continue to escalate,” says Tim Badman. “We call on all governments to accelerate action on climate change under the Paris Agreement so that unique ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef can continue to benefit biodiversity and local communities.”

Climate change is now the biggest threat to natural World Heritage, according the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3. Published in December 2020, the report assessed the Great Barrier Reef as having a “critical” outlook, down from “significant concern” in 2017. Many scientific assessments, including official government reports by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, have pointed to the deterioration of the site. The site has been considered for danger-listing several times since 2012.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. As the largest reef on Earth, its vast and diverse ecosystems support thousands of marine and terrestrial species.

UNESCO’s 44th session of the World Heritage Committee is taking place online until 31 July, hosted by Fuzhou, China. IUCN prepared recommendations on 95 sites facing threats this year.

Today the Committee is reviewing IUCN’s advice on possible danger-listing of four World Heritage sites, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region in Albania and North Macedonia, the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, and the Volcanoes of Kamchatka in Russia.   


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