UNESCO's Great Barrier Reef report: experts respond, by Justin Norrie

A damning UNESCO report has criticised management of the Great Barrier Reef and warned that the area could be downgraded to a world heritage site “in danger” unless Australia makes major changes to its supervision.

The report expresses “extreme concern” at the rapid rate of coastal development at sites such as Gladstone and Curtis Island – for liquefied natural gas plants – and says no new developments that could affect the reef should go ahead until a thorough assessment of the area is carried out.

Colin Hunt, Honorary Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland

UNESCO has come out with a very strong report here. It’s almost a threat. There are no sanctions that UNESCO can apply to Australia, of course, but sanctions can certainly come from the Australian public if there’s a downgrade to the listing, because there’ll be a huge fallout if that happens.

It seems now that there’s a change of policy underway – from a situation where there were a number of ports on the Queensland coast that were vying with each other to be chosen for new gas developments, to one in which there will be fewer developments so as to reduce the impact. Developments will inevitably go ahead, but the fewer the better. That’s the view of the UNESCO committee and I think that will be the policy of the Queensland State Government.

What is also inevitable is that these developments will be in the world heritage area, which is under the jurisdiction of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – in other words the Australian Government and Environment Minister Tony Burke. The Commonwealth will therefore have the last say. It can, on the grounds of biodiversity, put very strong conditions on aspects of port developments, or even knock them back altogether.

Under the reduction-of-red-tape agreement between the State and Commonwealth, the Commonwealth is supposed to cede some of the comments on environmental impact statements to the states. But in this case, it’s very much in the interest of the Commonwealth Government to satisfy the requirements of the UNESCO committee, because if the status of the world heritage area is downgraded to “in danger”, it will cause an enormous backlash in the community. So it’s going to be fascinating to see whether we can have the growth as promised by coal exports and at the same time preserve our listing of the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area.

The Queensland Government will suffer too if there’s a downgrade. But don’t forget that it’s just been elected, and it has a big majority, whereas the federal election is coming up next June and Labor is behind in the polls.

I have a big stake in this because I was one of the architects at the 25-year strategic plan for the Great Barrier Reef, in 1994, which was accepted by the State and Commonwealth Governments at that time. We had tourism operators, we had miners, we had farmers, we had Aboriginal traditional owners – we had all those stakeholders and we spent three years coming up with a plan which has guided the management of the reef up until now. Everything so far has been plain sailing, barring some runoff from farms and the impact of climate change. But now we have this, which is the first time in almost 20 years that we’ve had a major problem with development. It’s a turning point, a huge issue that isn’t going to go away, and it’s a bit of a worry that the Federal Government is likely to be changing in a year’s time. What will happen after that?

You have to go back and look at the history of the reef, and the protests when they wanted to mine it in the 1960s, Judith Wright’s huge international campaign, the listing in 1981 – all those things with a massive following by millions of Australians. I’m sure that Tony Burke is well aware of all of it all.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland

UNESCO is clearly very concerned about the rapid coastal development, particularly the development of gas processing facilities within the World Heritage area. The recommendation is that we take a much more cautious approach given how much is at stake with respect to the Great Barrier Reef.

The World Heritage report also warns that some of the developments in the pipeline will pose a serious risk to the Great Barrier Reef, and hence will lead to the UNESCO World Heritage committee classifying the world heritage reef system has “in danger”.

Clearly UNESCO is very concerned by the rate of the transformative activities in the Gladstone and Curtis Island areas. I think they have posed some important questions about how such activities have been approved. But given that these activities are in full swing, it is now time to reflect on how we proceed with future developments.

The major challenge here is how we balance the development of some sections of the Queensland coastline with the huge benefits we get from the Great Barrier Reef as one of our leading environmental assets and tourist destinations.

The risk of an “in danger” listing has substantial ramifications. For example, what will such a change do to tourism in Queensland in terms of our identity and brand? Will as many people come to Australia if they are told that the World Heritage region is in danger?

This is why the next episode is critical.

The extraction of gas and minerals is by definition a temporary activity, while the Great Barrier Reef and its tourist industries – given good environmental management – are potentially sustainable forever, delivering benefits to many generations of Queenslanders. To let the first destroy the second doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.

Consequently, the Queensland Government’s recent statements that we have to rapidly extract minimal resources in this fashion to pay for hospitals and keep the lights on is inaccurate at best. The tourism industry provides enormous value to Queensland on an ongoing basis. This is really what will keep the lights on, the hospitals functioning and our coastal communities prosperous. And for a very long time after the conclusion of mining activities and other temporary activities.

Justin Norrie is Editor at The Conversation, where this article was originally published.

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