Australian PM blasts Great Barrier Reef downgrade plan by UNESCO

SYDNEY — Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison blasted a decision by UNESCO to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Status as “appalling,” with his ministers hinting the move is a politically-motivated act of retribution by China.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee concluded the reef — which covers nearly 350,000 square kilometers — is “in danger” from climate change because Australia is not doing enough to protect it. The 21-country committee is currently chaired by Beijing.

“The listing of a site as World Heritage in Danger allows the conservation community to respond to specific preservation needs in an efficient manner,” according to UNESCO.

But Morrison criticized the manner in which the Great Barrier Reef had been downgraded. “The UNESCO process has been appalling,” Morrison told Australian radio station 4BC on Thursday.

“We’ve been busy in talking to our friends and the list of countries is quite extraordinary,” he said. “Indonesia, Canada, the U.K., France, Thailand, Poland, Bangladesh, Philippines, Turkey, Spain, joining us in highlighting this process is not on.”

An Australian government report in 2019 officially downgraded the Great Barrier Reef’s outlook from poor to very poor due to climate change, but Canberra sees broader geopolitics in the UNESCO move — with Beijing pulling the strings at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries are at a low point.

“Clearly there were politics behind it; clearly those politics have subverted a proper process and for the World Heritage Committee to not even foreshadow this listing is, I think, appalling,” Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley told reporters Tuesday according to news.com.au.

Ley, alongside Foreign Minister Marise Payne, called Director General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay on Tuesday and “expressed Australia’s dissatisfaction with the process that is being followed,” Ley said in a statement.

Morrison cited the government’s investment of $3 billion on reef sciences as proof of what he called “the best managed reefs in the world.”

The EU’s Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius has called for Australia to sign on to the 84-country Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which calls for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Great Barrier Reef and its precious marine ecosystems are under threat. To protect it we need rapid actions,” he tweeted in April.

But Morrison has avoided committing to a 2050 net-zero emissions goal for the country, shifting focus instead to “the commercialization of low-emissions technology,” as he told business leaders in a speech in April.

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