The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a draft decision recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Sadly, this should not be a surprise. Scientific evidence clearly shows that the reef, which is the largest living structure and continuous coral reef system on Earth, is in danger.
Every five years the Australian government publishes the most comprehensive assessment of the Great Barrier Reef — the Outlook Report. The first two Outlook Reports rated the long-term outlook of the reef as “poor.” The most recent Outlook Report, published in 2019, downgraded the long-term outlook to “very poor.” It said the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change.
On top of this, the Australian government’s water quality reports show it is failing to meet its own targets to reduce fertilizer and sediment runoff. The UNESCO experts who prepared the draft decision simply acted on this mounting evidence. Nonetheless, the draft decision has garnered global attention, and for good reason. The Great Barrier Reef is a global treasure, spanning an area large enough to be seen from space and providing habitat to an incredible array of fish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, and more. If the reef continues its decline, the future of those species could be undermined as well.
Coral bleaching, caused by underwater heatwaves, is one of the most conspicuous impacts of climate change. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered three mass bleaching events in the space of just five years — in 2016, 2017 and 2020 — which killed an estimated 50 percent of the reef’s inshore coral.
There are three critical components to taking action working with many of the 200+ NGOs and academic institutions focusing their energies on the Great Barrier Reef
1: Surveying the 35 million Hectares of Reef Systes to assess where the most urgent and impactful protection and regeneration is needed
2: Developing new, and scaling up the proven strategies for Reef Protection and Regeneration
3: Working with near shore farming communities to restrict the leakage of fertilisers and chemicals into the Ocean which are responsible for huge amounts of Reef destruction
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Protecting and restoring the Great Barrier Reef not only provides huge eco system benefits for the worlds Oceans and eco tourism revenue for coastal communities in Australia, but it also provides dances in scientific knowledge and understanding that can be utilised on reef systems around the world
Globally, reefs have an important role to play in climate adaptation, serving as a critical barrier protecting coastal communities against impacts from storm surges brought on by more extreme weather and higher sea levels. But reefs from Florida to the Philippines face similar challenges to those we see in Australia. A 2018 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius could lead to a worldwide decline of 70 to 90 percent of all coral reefs by 2100. And if we fail to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, then nearly all could be lost.
We need to take action now to finance the various strategic programmes which together can help to reverse the scale of reef destruction which threatens this iconic symbol of our relationship with planet earth.