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Australia requests UNESCO world heritage specialists visit the Great Barrier Reef before listing it in global ‘in danger’ sites

Australia is requesting world heritage specialists complete a monitoring mission to the Great Barrier Reef before an international committee decides if it ought to be placed on a list of global sites in danger.

The Australian government on Monday night informed international ambassadors and Paris-based representatives to UNESCO as a feature of lobbying efforts to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the in-danger list.

Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO told the instructions the integrity of the whole world heritage system – which distinguishes places of importance to humanity – could be compromised if the 21-country committee set the reef on the list when it meets later in July.

The Morrison government is likewise inviting foreign diplomats to visit the 2,300km reef, off Queensland’s coast, before the meeting.

At Monday night’s advising, which Guardian Australia has seen, the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said: “We will seek a proper reactive monitoring mission before this question can be properly assessed.

“We seek your support in getting due process followed,” she said.

Senior authorities from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and the environment department likewise talked during the hour-long briefing.

Participants were revealed to Australia had a strong track record of battling environmental change, had put vigorously in reef conservation, and its emissions were falling at record levels.

The latest falls in Australia’s emissions were because of the economic slowdown brought about by the Covid pandemic. Australia has said it wants its economic recovery to be driven by developments in the gas industry.

Australia has not presented a new greenhouse gas emissions target since 2015 and has been generally scrutinized for an absence of desire. The nation is additionally a significant exporter of oil and gas.

Australia’s Paris-based ambassador to UNESCO, Megan Anderson, told the preparation the UN body had “rushed” its June suggestion to list the reef “before any reactive monitoring mission” had been done.

“A rush to ‘in danger’ list the Great Barrier Reef – ahead of a mission, ahead of identifying a desired state of conservation and ahead of an agreed Unesco climate policy on world heritage – is not in the interests of the reef and nor is it in the interest of protecting the integrity of the world heritage system,” Anderson said.

Anderson and ambassadors from 10 different nations last month wrote a letter to UNESCO with their “collective concerns” over its decision-making process.

The Morrison government said it was “blindsided” when UNESCO uncovered its recommendation, blaming a lack of due process and “politics”.

In any case, UNESCO authorities have straight denied claims by Ley that it had given confirmations the in danger listing would not be suggested – or that the process had been politicized.

Dr. Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris, has said monitoring missions are not generally required before a danger listing is suggested.

UNESCO has characterized the “in danger” listing as a “call to action” that will make the world aware of the plight of the reef and the significance of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. UNESCO highlighted impacts from environmental change and an absence of progress on further developing water quality as areas of concern.

There are 53 natural sites on the “in danger” list, including Florida’s Everglades. Belize’s barrier reef – part of the world’s second-largest reef system – was on the list from 2009 to 2018.

Australian authorities at the Monday briefing said the Great Barrier Reef’s main threat was climate change, however international action on cutting emissions should focus on the UN’s climate change convention, and not the world heritage process.

Rising ocean temperatures brought about by fossil fuel burning have caused three mass coral bleachings – in 2016, 2017, and 2020 – since the reef was last considered by the world heritage committee in 2015.

AIMS’ CEO, Paul Hardisty, said his institute’s long-term monitoring program was showing the beginnings of a “widespread recovery” which was expected after no significant effects since the 2020 bleaching – the most widespread on record.

In any case, he told the briefing an expansion in the amount of coral on reefs was driven by faster-growing species that were susceptible to bleaching and “come and go fairly quickly”.

Overall the number of reefs in great condition was falling, he said, while the number of reefs in bad condition was rising.

China is the current chair of the committee and will have the virtual meeting from 16-31 July. A decision on the reef will probably be considered during a three-day block from 21 to 23 July.

Around 16 nations were represented at the briefing, an Australian government source said.

In a statement to Guardian Australia, China’s permanent delegation to UNESCO affirmed one of its officials had gone to the briefing.

As the host and chair of the committee, China was “attentive to all communication and sharing of information” in front of the meeting “including the item on one of Australia’s inscriptions”.

A representative for Ley said the government had “extended an invitation to member states to see the reef” before the meeting. “We think it is important that, before the World Heritage Committee meeting, we offer member states that opportunity,” the representative said.

Last week, five leading reef researchers wrote to UNESCO backing its decision to suggest the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the World Heritage in danger list.

Among the five researchers was Australian Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who is the current chief researcher at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation which, in 2018, got a controversial $443m government grant to co-ordinate efforts to assemble the reef’s strength.

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