The heritage committee of the UNESCO cultural agency said on Wednesday that the outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was poor due to threats including pollution and climate change but stopped short of listing it as “in danger”.
Some environmental campaigners had urged the committee to declare the reef in danger, a ruling that would have put pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to take tougher conservation measures.
The decision upheld a draft deal signed in May that was a relief for Canberra. Australia plans to safeguard the reef until 2050 with extra spending to limit pollution and restrictions on developing of new ports.
“Climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal development are major threats to the property’s health,” the World Heritage Committee of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said in a decision adopted at talks in Bonn.
The committee lists 45 sites worldwide in danger, from corals in Belize to the city of Timbuktu in Mali. A listing is an embarrassment to governments and means the committee draws up a non-binding list of actions to restore sites.
The reef, which stretches 2,000 kms (1,200 miles) along Australia’s coast, is the world’s largest living ecosystem, and brings in billions of dollars a year in tourism revenues.
Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister, has said a UN decision not to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger shows that Australia is a “role model to the world” in environmental protection.
On Wednesday, the 21 nations on Unesco’s world heritage committee uanimously endorsed an earlier draft ruling that the reef stay off the in-danger list, although Australia must report back on its recovery plans by December next year.
Between them, the Australian and Queensland governments have pledged to ban the dumping of dredged seabed sediment within the reef’s world heritage area and to limit the expansion of ports along the coast.
The federal government has put $140m towards a reef trust to improve water quality, with a target of slashing the amount of nitrogen flowing onto coral by 80% over the next decade.
Government scientists warn that Reef is in poor condition
The government’s scientists have warned that the reef is in poor and deteriorating condition, with climate change the leading long-term threat to the vast coral ecosystem. Pollution flowing from land, cyclones and a plague of coral-eating starfish are also degrading the reef system, which is roughly the size of Italy and supports more than 1,600 species of fish.
Australia announced an extra A$8 million ($6.2 million) for reef monitoring at the Bonn talks, saying it had “clearly heard” the concerns of the committee and of environmental groups.
In May, Australia said it would more than double an area near the Great Barrier Reef subject to special curbs on shipping.
“The plan now needs to translate into action, backed by adequate finance and rigorous science,” said Tim Badman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Greenpeace said that the reef was in danger from planned coal mining in the Galilee Basin in Queensland.
“Until the plans for the massive coal mine and port expansion are dropped, it’s impossible to take Australia’s claims that they are protecting the reef seriously,” Greenpeace’s Jess Panegyres said.
Dermot O’Gorman, of the WWF conservation group, said that the committee’s decision “places Australia on probation”.
- The Great Barrier Reef includes 3,000 coral reefs and 600 islands
- It is the world’s largest marine park, covering 348,000 sq km
- It contains 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 kinds of mollusc
- It attracts about two million tourists each year.
- The region contributes A$6bn ($4.6bn; £3bn) a year to the Australian economy