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Great Barrier Reef outlook worsens to 'critical' as climate change named number one threat to world heritage sites

By Jason Dasey, Thursday December 3, 2020 - 21:03 EDT
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The condition of the Great Barrier Reef has deteriorated to "critical" — the worst possible rating. - ABC

The condition of the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from "significant concern" to "critical" in a damning world heritage outlook report by a UNESCO advisory body.



The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) escalated the reef's status to the worst possible rating in its report on Thursday and named climate change the greatest threat to the Australian natural wonder.

The move comes as an influx of tourists return to Queensland after the easing of coronavirus border restrictions, eager to holiday on the reef.

The report also downgraded its rating of four other Australian World Heritage areas: the Blue Mountains, the Gondwana rainforests, Shark Bay and the Ningaloo Coast.

The report found that climate change was a threat in 11 of 16 Australian World Heritage sites, or 69 per cent of them ? more than double a global trend of 33 per cent, which represented 83 or 252 sites.

It noted that the Black Summer bushfires had also made a negative impact.

Climate change 'the greatest threat'

The 2020 Conservation Outlook observed "a number of values" that had placed the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage List had diminished, with much of the damage done in the past four years.

"There has been a further dramatic decline [at the reef] as a result of the 2016, 2017 and 2020 coral bleaching events," the report said.

"Some of the activities causing a threat to the values of the site can be influenced by the management authorities, such as fishing and coastal development.

"[But] other pressures cannot be addressed at the site level, such as climate change, which is recognised as the greatest threat."

The IUCN is the official advisor on nature to the UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

Its report uses the opinions of international experts who weigh up the natural values of World Heritage sites, while assessing how well-protected they are from ongoing and future threats.

'A very grim outlook'

Scott Heron, an Associate Professor in Physics at James Cook University in Townsville, said he was "surprised and shocked" by the deterioration of the reef's condition.

"This is a robust and scientifically rigorous report so I think it is a very grim outlook, with the key threat being climate change," Dr Heron said.

"Three coral-bleaching events in [less than] five years are a swaying factor in terms of the threat to the reef ? however, it's not the only threat."

Dr Heron, who is also a physical oceanographer working on coral reef applications, listed inappropriate fishing use, terrestrial run-off, and water quality and pollution as other threats causing the condition of the reef to be compromised.



Adam Smith, Managing Director of Reef Ecologic, which works on community-based reef restoration projects, said the damning report was "expected" but could turn out to be a catalyst to encourage Australians to reduce their carbon footprint.

He cited the example of how people have consciously and successfully changed their behaviour by reducing their use of plastic bags while shopping.

"There are some scientists who say it's all too hard, but others who effectively respond to a crisis," Mr Smith said.

"Humans are smart, and just as we've dramatically transitioned away from plastic bags, more individuals should look to become carbon neutral.

"We need to do this not just locally, but globally."

David Cazzulino, a campaigner from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the report would put "extra international pressure on the Federal Government" to come up with a national climate change policy.

"Australia risks being left behind on the world stage on climate, we risk losing our World Heritage-listed icons and the thousands of jobs that rely on these places for their livelihoods," he said.

"So we need urgent action."



North Queensland Conservation Council community campaigner Crystal Falknau described the state of the reef as "terminal" and urged stronger action against climate change from government.

"This report is a massive red flag that climate change is happening right now," Ms Falknau said.

"This is the most severe category and it means that climate change has put the Great Barrier Reef on a trajectory that is absolutely terminal and there's no looking back.

"[Governments] need to show strong leadership on a global stage and reduce carbon emissions immediately as much as they possibly can to really reduce the impacts of climate change.



"We showed that when we listen to the science, we can handle a global pandemic and it will be exactly the same for climate change."

She said locals were devastated to witness coral bleaching events occur in consecutive years with their own eyes.

"It's heartbreaking to think that future generations won't have the opportunities to explore this beautiful World Heritage area just like we have," she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Federal Department of Environment said the report reflected the impacts of extreme weather events Australia has seen over the past year.

It said the report showed "the significant work by the Australian Government ? to protect and manage our natural World Heritage properties".

"Australia is committed to playing its role in a global response to climate change, it is investing unprecedented amounts protecting the Reef, in bushfire wildlife and habitat recovery and in supporting our world heritage places," it said.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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