The Great Barrier Reef should be added to a list of “in danger” World Heritage Sites, a UN committee said on Tuesday, drawing an angry response from Australia which said the recommendation was politically motivated.
Australia has lobbied furiously for years to stay off the endangered list as it could lead to the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem losing its World Heritage Site status, potentially reducing its attraction for tourists.
Making its recommendation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee said action was needed to counter the effects of climate change as the prospects of the reef retaining that cherished status had deteriorated.
Invited by Australia, UNESCO delegates visited an unspoilt stretch of the reef in 2015, but scientists say the world’s largest living ecosystem has suffered three major coral bleaching events since then due to severe marine heatwaves.
Defending Australia’s efforts to protect the reef, Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Canberra would challenge the committee’s recommendation, saying some hidden agenda had influenced its findings.
“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” Leys said, adding that Australia had conveyed its concerns to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.
China chairs the UNESCO committee, but when asked in parliament Ley declined to say whether she was pointing the finger at Beijing. A government official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters, that China had been responsible for the committee’s stance.
“We will appeal, but China is in control,” the government source said.
China’s embassy in Canberra did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Relations with China, the biggest customer for Australia’s exports, have deteriorated during recent years, reaching a low point after Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought an independent inquiry over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Environmental groups gave short shrift to the notion that politics played a part in the adverse recommendation, saying it was clear that Australia was not doing enough to protect the reef.
“There is no avenue for any government to have any input. This recommendation is reached by world renowned scientists,” said Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature, Australia.
Leck was among a group of conservationists that lobbied 13 members of the UNESCO committee to reach its recommendation, which will now be considered by all 21 countries on the committee.
Though it sits on the committee, Australia will be unable to vote if the panel is unable to reach a consensus, according to convention.
Australia’s reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita, but its conservative government has steadfastly backed the country’s fossil fuel industries, arguing tougher action on emissions would cost jobs.
How the government handles the threat of losing the World Heritage Site could also impact domestic politics as about 5 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef each year, supporting nearly 70,000 jobs in Queensland state.
Queensland will be a major battleground state when Morrison returns to polls within the next year, looking to secure his party a fourth consecutive term.