Day 6

UNESCO says climate change has put the Great Barrier Reef in danger. Here's why that matters

A recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef be added to a list of heritage sites "in danger" is vital given the imminent danger climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef, says environmental consultant Imogen Zethoven. But the Australian government has pushed back on the idea.

UN agency's decision to highlight the threat to the iconic heritage sight was vital: researcher

Decomposing coral is shown on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In the last decade, the world's largest coral reef system has been affected by spikes in water temperatures. (XL Catlin Global Reef Record via AP)

An environmental consultant says it's vital that the Great Barrier Reef be added to a list of World Heritage Sites "in danger" because of the threat it faces from climate change.

In late June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended the Great Barrier Reef should be added to the list.

"It's the first time the UNESCO, which oversees all the World Heritage Sites in the world, has really taken a stand, particularly in regards to climate change for one site," Imogen Zethoven, environmental consultant to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho. 

"The Great Barrier Reef ... has been very badly affected by climate change, so that's why we've really welcomed the step. I think it will set the direction for UNESCO and how it relates to climate change in the future."

Imogen Zethoven is an environmental consultant to the Australian Marine Conservation Society. (Submitted by Imogen Zethoven)

The Australian government was quick to push back on the announcement, arguing UNESCO's contention is overtly political.

"This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it," said Environment Minister Sussan Ley. The Australian government says it has conveyed its concerns to UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay.

Impact on the reef

According to Zethoven, climate change has devastated the reef for years now. 

"The Great Barrier Reef has had three very severe and widespread coral bleaching events that have been driven by marine heat waves, and that's really led to quite a significant impact on the health of the Great Barrier Reef from north to south, and east to west," she says.

Marine heat waves occur when ocean or sea temperatures increase abnormally for a short period of time. Zethoven argues that these unusually warm periods have wreaked havoc on the reef in the last five years. 

"There had been two [marine heat waves] in 1998 and 2002, which had affected about five per cent of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But in 2016, a shocking ... 29 per cent of the corals died. That was an extraordinary event."

As recently as 2020, these spikes in water temperatures have continued in a pattern, says Zethoven. 

"In 2020, there was another event," she says. "So these three events really change the Great Barrier Reef forever and really highlight and reinforce the fact that global warming is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef."

The government has recognized the problem, but it hasn't done anything about it

Pushback on recommendation

Australia's federal government says it recognizes the danger that climate change poses to the reef, but Zethoven argues that recognition is not enough. 

"It hasn't done anything about it," she said. "And that is really why I think UNESCO has made the decision."

Fish swim along the edges of a coral reef off Great Keppel Island in Australia in November 2016. Australia's federal government has pushed back on a recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef be declared 'in danger' by UNESCO. (Dan Peled/AAP Image via Associated Press)

Australian government sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the government suspects China — which chairs the UNESCO committee — is behind the decision to add the reef to the "in danger" list.

Relations between Australia and China have soured in recent years, and recently hit a low after Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought an independent inquiry over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China denies all assertions that it is behind UNESCO's decision making. 

Moving forward

Zethoven asserts that much of Australia's pushback against UNESCO is related to the country's reliance on the fossil fuel industry. 

"We are the world's second-largest exporter of fossil fuels," she told Day 6. 

"[Australia] really has a very, very weak 2030 emissions reduction target, much weaker than Canada, for example, and most of our trading partners."

The recommendation requires endorsement from the World Heritage Committee to have any substantial impact. Australia is one of 21 nations on the committee and, if the decision is endorsed, Australia will be asked to come up with measures to tackle climate change. 

Zethoven argues that although climate change measures could impact the country's fossil fuel sector, Australia would benefit economically from a shift toward renewable energy sources. 

"We have abundant resources in this country for renewable energy, abundant sunshine [and] huge resources from the wind," she argues. 

"Tackling climate change really is an economic opportunity for Australia."


Written by Oliver Thompson with files from CBC News and Reuters. Interview with Imogen Zethoven produced by Ashley Fraser. 

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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