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Great Barrier Reef

A green sea turtle among the corals at Lady Elliot Island. In the quest to save the Great Barrier Reef, researchers, farmers, and business owners are looking for ways to reduce the effects of climate change as experts warn that a third mass bleaching has taken place. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Australia's Great Barrier Reef 'In Danger,' Says UNESCO

"The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset."

Jenna McGuire

The Great Barrier Reef has deteriorated so rapidly it should be listed as a World Heritage Site "in danger," a United Nations committee said Monday, echoing scientists' warnings that climate change is destroying the world's largest coral reef system.

UNESCO, the world body's educational, scientific, and cultural agency, said its recommendation to downgrade the status of the site is due to the ongoing impacts of unusually warm ocean temperatures along the reef that have left large swaths of the coral endangered or already dead.

According to NBC News:

Any downgrade of the reef's World Heritage status could also reduce tourism revenue that the natural wonder generates and shake Australians' national pride, along with confidence in their government's ability to care for the coral reef ecosystem.

The committee's call to place the massive coral ecosystem on its List of World Heritage in Danger comes ahead of a July meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Fuzhou, China where officials will vote on the reef's designation.

Without significant action, rising temperatures and ocean acidification could wipe out all of the world's coral reef habitats by 2100.

The designation is meant to inform the international community and encourage corrective action and would empower UNESCO to monitor the reef's state in reducing emissions and environmental harm.

The decision prompted immediate backlash from Australian officials.

Australia's environment minister, Sussan Ley, said in a statement on Tuesday that Australia would "strongly oppose" the draft recommendation and claimed the decision was flawed and overtly political.

Australian officials have been at odds with UNESCO for years and in 2016 successfully lobbied for details of the damage to the reef to be omitted from a 2016 UNESCO report so that it would not affect tourism.

"For too long, a succession of Australian prime ministers have hidden behind the big lie that you can protect the Great Barrier Reef without rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas," said Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive David Ritter.

Rejection of the designation from Australian officials comes despite years of warnings from scientists about the devastating effects of human-caused climate change to the world's crucial ecosystems, including a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) official who last year described the Great Barrier Reef as 'on a knife edge.'

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered massive bleaching events in recent years and scientists have said that without significant action, rising temperatures and ocean acidification could wipe out all of the world's coral reef habitats by 2100.

A 2020 Environmental Justice Foundation report found that rising temperatures, pollution, and overfishing were leading causes of unprecedented damage to coral reefs and biodiversity around the world.

"The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset," said Richard Leck, head of oceans for WWF-Australia in a statement.

While half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have reportedly already been lost, Australia remains one of the only wealthy nations that has not pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

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