Australia has been given another year to avoid the Great Barrier Reef being put on a list of World Heritage protected sites considered ‘‘in danger’’, but has received an international dressing down for a recent approval of dredging and dumping in the natural wonder’s waters.
At a meeting in Doha, the World Heritage Committee agreed to keep the threat of putting the reef on the ‘‘in danger’’ list hanging over Australia’s head, but pushed back consideration of the move until a meeting in 2015.
It gives Australia another 12 months to keep addressing concerns first raised by the United Nation’s heritage body – UNESCO – back in 2012 about the health of the reef and the impact of significant new port and resources development on the reef shoreline.
A green turtle in the Great Barrier Reef, which will not be listed as 'in danger'. Photo: Gary Cranitch
As part of its decision the committee approved recommendations from UNESCO that ‘‘concern’’ and ‘‘regret’’ be expressed about the federal government’s approval of dredging and dumping of 3 million cubic metres of sludge in the reef’s waters as part of the development of new coal ports at Abbot Point, north of Bowen.
But there was debate. During the meeting, Malaysian delegates sought to remove references to concern and regret in the decision, but failed when the majority of other member countries of the committee spoke against the move. Malaysia also wanted the text to be changed to remove UNESCO’s concern that the approval was made before a comprehensive assessment of less impactful alternatives was undertaken, and instead say a full assessment had been carried out.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said he was pleased the Committee did not list the reef as ''in danger'' and had acknowledged the significant work and progress of Australia in protecting the reef.
''UNESCO started the consideration of the reef’s health under the previous Labor government in June 2011. Since that time they have now formally recognised significant work and progress in reef protection,'' Mr Hunt said.
Mr Hunt said the Australia and Queensland governments were jointly investing about $180 million annually in the reef’s health.
He said the approval of Abbot Point development had complied with Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention and was subject to rigorous environmental assessment.
Earlier Australia's representative at the meeting said the suggestion the country had not carried out a complete approval process was ''factually incorrect''.
Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell also spoke on Australia's behalf, pointing to substantial progress on the concerns about the reef's health through new strategic plans to guide port development and reduced pollution run-off, among other measures.
Speaking before the decision on Wednesday, Mr Powell told ABC radio the committee was being misinformed about the health of the reef.
‘‘A lot of misinformation is being conveyed to the World Heritage Committee and to the member states, and that’s the importance of why I’ve come here,’’ Mr Powell said.
Last week the federal and Queensland governments sought to allay concerns the reef’s World Heritage status would be downgraded after it released a report showing large reductions in pollution run-off into the reef’s waters - one of the main sources of poor water quality in the World Heritage site - following years of work with landholders.
As part of its decision the World Heritage Committee welcomed the progress made by the two governments on water quality and encouraged them to continue and where necessary expand their efforts.
WWF campaigner Richard Leck, who is also in Doha and addressed the meeting, said the committee had stood firm on the need for stronger reef protection and had maintained its strong language about the approval of the Abbot Point dredging and dumping.
''This decision puts the Australian government on notice for 2015 that they need to lift their efforts to avoid the reef being listed as in danger next year,'' he said.
Also as part of the decision the World Heritage Committee said it considered the move by the Abbott government to devolve federal environmental approval powers to the states as premature before a long-term plan for sustainable development for the reef was adopted.
Labor environment spokesman Mark Butler said the world heritage committee had delivered a harsh verdict on the government's management of the reef.
''With this latest warning from the World Heritage Committee, Labor calls on Tony Abbott to reconsider his dangerous handover of federal environmental approval powers,'' Mr Butler said.
“Protection of the Great Barrier Reef should be the responsibility of the national government. That’s how the World Heritage Committee sees it; it’s how Australians see it too.''
Greens environment spokeswoman Larissa Waters said the committee had given the Australian and Queensland governments one last chance to better protect the reef.
“This is the third and probably the final warning from the World Heritage Committee for the future of our reef,” she said.