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Disc coral (<i>Turbinaria mesenterina</i>) at the GBR’s Ribbon Reefs.

Disc coral (Turbinaria mesenterina) at the GBR’s Ribbon Reefs.

Richard Ling/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Great Barrier Reef keeps World Heritage Site status

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—A threat by a key U.N. agency to list Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) as “in danger” has been averted—for now. A draft decision announced on 29 May by a working group of the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture's World Heritage Committee allows the GBR to keep its current World Heritage Area status but requires Australia to report on progress to safeguard the iconic reef from further decline by 1 December 2016. If “anticipated progress” is not demonstrated, an “in danger” listing will be reconsidered in 2017. Australia will also have to report in 2020 on whether the nation’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan is meeting its targets.

Demonstrating progress by the end of next year is “a real challenge given the enormity of the reef and the short time-line,” says Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville. He is critical of the Reef 2050 plan. When it was released in March, he told ScienceInsider it “virtually ignores climate change.”

The World Heritage Committee working group “notes with concern” that the overall outlook for the reef is “poor,” and that climate change, poor water quality, and impacts from coastal development are major threats to its health and have been degrading key habitats, species, and ecosystem processes in the central and southern inshore areas.

The draft decision will be approved—or amended—by the full committee when it meets in Bonn, Germany, later this month. The Australian government lobbied hard to avoid an embarrassing “in danger” listing—spending an estimated AU$76,500 visiting the committee’s 21 delegations in their home countries. That is no guarantee members will accept the draft or the government’s assurances. In recent years, the committee has often amended draft decisions.

Scientists and environmental groups remain skeptical about governmental promises. They argue that the government’s pledge of AU$1.53 billion over 10 years is insufficient to meet its planned targets, and point to state and federal support for development of a complex of coal mines in central Queensland, including the world’s largest thermal coal project. Hughes notes that the “unprecedented expansion” of mines and ports will see the number of coal ships crossing the GBR grow from 1600 in 2012 to more than 4000 by 2020. Greenpeace says the draft decision should not be viewed as a reprieve, calling it in a statement “a big red flag.”