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Behind the scenes on the Barrier Reef decision

The reef has avoided a UNESCO "in danger" listing... but at what cost? (Pixabay / Yuejun Gao)

THE Spanish ambassador to UNESCO has revealed details of the Australian government’s negotiations to avoid an “in danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef.

Last month, the Morrison government succeeded in its bid to stop the World Heritage Committee declaring the reef endangered at least until the next Committee meeting in 12 months’ time.

That was despite UNESCO recommending the reef receive that status because of the effects of climate change and poor water quality.

Australia’s win came after a last-minute lobbying trip overseas by environment minister Sussan Ley who secured support from 11 countries on the 21-member Committee, including such notorious oil-dependent and climate-sceptic nations as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Spain also took Australia’s side in the Committee ruling on the reef, with ambassador Andrés Perelló revealing the price Canberra paid to secure his country’s support.

The trade-off was Australia’s support for World Heritage listing for Madrid’s Retiro Park and Prado Avenue.

Those monuments were listed two days after the Barrier Reef decision despite the International Council on Monuments and Sites expressing environmental and pollution concerns.

“I support what I think I can support, which has been this… and I do not do it for free, of course,” Mr Perelló said in comments reported by Spanish website Climática.

“If Australia tells me to vote for it to pollute, I don’t vote for it, even if I don’t get what I want [in return].

“But if it is something I can accept because the proposal coincides with what our embassy in Canberra told us a representative of the environmentalists in the country was asking for… then I agree not to put [the reef] on the ‘in danger’ list, [but] I demand Australia accept conditions as if it were on that list.

“And if [Australia] says yes, then I say yes, but in exchange [Australia] must vote for the Prado.

“That’s fine, it’s perfectly transparent.”

WWF Australia Head of Oceans Richard Leck acknowledged deal-making is a diplomatic reality.

But he took issue with the ambassador’s assertion Spain hasn’t betrayed Australian environmentalists by supporting delayed action on the reef.

“It’s irrelevant whether the Spanish ambassador feels Australian environmentalists have been betrayed,” Mr Leck said.

“What’s important is whether the decision with the stronger scientific integrity was adopted by the Committee, and unfortunately, it wasn’t.

“It’s clear the Great Barrier Reef is in danger, that finding was based on reports submitted to UNESCO by the Australian and Queensland governments.

“So, the most important question here is not whether environmentalists have been betrayed, but whether the science behind the draft decision has.”

Mr Leck also objected to Liberal senator Jane Hume’s defence that Australia has a reputation as the best marine park manager in the world.

“Australia has a very good reputation in managing our marine parks, but… the key threats impacting the reef don’t happen within the marine park boundaries,” Mr Leck said.

“They happen outside the boundaries, and the two major threats are the water pollution that flows from the reef’s catchments as a result of poor farming practices and of course climate change.

“What the UNESCO draft recommendation found was that to protect the World Heritage Area it’s not just enough to manage the marine park well, you have to manage the threats that are impacting the reef that come from outside.

“The number one threat is climate change, and clearly, Australia is simply not doing enough to reduce our emissions to give the reef a fighting chance.”

Mr Leck called on the federal government to implement climate policy consistent with its own acknowledgement that 1.5 degrees’ global warming is the critical threshold for the reef – not with the path of the 2.5-3 degrees global temperature rise Australia is currently on.

Australian Marine Conservation Society Great Barrier Reef campaigner Cherry Muddle said it is a shame politics was put above conservation in the Committee decision on the reef.

“It would be better for all countries with World Heritage sites to be more focused on looking after them over and above concerted lobbying efforts to get favourable results,” Ms Muddle said.

She warned global heating is an existential threat to the reef that will severely tests its resilience no matter how well it is managed, and said that 70-90 per cent of the world’s reefs will be lost even at 1.5 degrees’ global warming.

“It is vital for the future of our reef that the Morrison government starts reducing emissions drastically now,” she said.

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Cameron Doody

Cameron holds a doctorate in Studies of the Ancient World from the Autonomous and Complutense Universities of Madrid. He has 4.5 years' experience as a reporter in Spain and 3.5 years' experience as a lecturer in Ethics. Writing from Gawler in South Australia, in Kaurna country, he is passionate about advocating for a more humane economy, digital and workers' rights, freedom of expression, sustainability and multiculturalism. In his spare time he enjoys unwinding with friends and family, playing the piano and helping to make the world a better place.

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