Media release

The world is watching: UNESCO monitoring Australia’s failure to protect Great Barrier Reef from climate change

June 03, 2017


Lawyers welcome UNESCO’s serious concerns about the coral bleaching and mortality on the Great Barrier Reef caused by climate change, but say Australia is failing to fulfill its international legal responsibilities to protect the Reef from the impacts of climate change

Documents released by UNESCO today in preparation for the World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Poland in July express serious concern about coral bleaching and mortality on the Great Barrier Reef, caused by climate change.

But international and Australian lawyers say UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee must also require Australia to do its fair share to protect the Reef into the future by reducing its emissions and removing its support for coal mining.

Earthjustice lawyer Noni Austin said, “In 2016, 29% of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef bleached and died due to elevated ocean temperatures caused by climate change, and more coral has died this year, the first time severe bleaching over successive years has been recorded on the Reef.

“We welcome UNESCO’s expression of serious concern about the coral bleaching and mortality that is destroying the Great Barrier Reef, but this is not enough to protect the Reef into the future.

“Under the World Heritage Convention, nations with World Heritage-listed coral reefs, such as Australia, have a legal responsibility to reduce their contributions to climate change. 

“Indeed, our recent report, provided to the World Heritage Committee and its advisers earlier this year, World Heritage and Climate Change: The Legal Responsibility of States to Reduce Their Contributions to Climate Change – A Great Barrier Reef Case Study, concludes that states with World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are also responsible for substantial historical or current greenhouse gas emissions and with more financial and technical capacity need to do their fair share to reduce their own emissions, and must ensure they do not authorise or facilitate the development of new sources of emissions or new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure.

“When the World Heritage Committee meets in July this year, it should call on Australia to do its fair share to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement, and remove its support for new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure that will lock in decades of emissions.”

Nicola Rivers, lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, said: “The evidence is clear: coral reefs will not survive into the second half of this century if humans continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates.
“In light of Australia’s responsibility to protect the Reef, as well as its resources, capacity to act, and very high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, Australia must take two urgent steps to protect the Reef and meet its obligations under the World Heritage Convention. 

“It must take serious and effective action to reduce its current greenhouse gas emissions, and cease the construction of new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure that will lock in decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

“But Australia is failing.  It is failing to do its fair share to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and is unlikely to meet its inadequate commitments under the Paris Agreement. 

“It is also permitting the development of massive new coal mines that will contribute substantially to climate change and to the further deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Since we provided our analysis to the Committee, things have only gotten worse as the Reef has continued to deteriorate with the successive bleaching event this year.”

About Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia

Earthjustice is the largest non-profit environmental law organization in the United States. It uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, preserve magnificent places and wildlife, advance clean energy, and combat climate change. 

Environmental Justice Australia is nature’s legal team, dedicated to justice for people and the planet. It uses the law to protect nature and defend the rights of communities to a healthy environment.   


Skip to content