Media release

United Nations: Urgent climate action required to save Great Barrier Reef

June 21, 2017


UNESCO calls on nations to reduce emissions to protect coral reefs, but lawyers say Australia is failing to meet its international legal responsibilities to do its fair share 

The World Heritage Committee will consider the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs around the world at its annual meeting to be held in Krakow, Poland, next month, according to documents released overnight by UNESCO.  UNESCO has proposed that the World Heritage Committee call on all governments, including Australia, to take urgent action to reduce emissions and implement the Paris Agreement.

As a custodian of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is failing to do its fair share to protect the Reef from the impacts of climate change, and must commit to stronger emissions reductions and remove its support for polluting coal mines.

Earthjustice attorney Noni Austin said: “The bleaching and death of coral reefs due to elevated ocean temperatures is telling us that climate change is happening now, with devastating effects.  UNESCO has just expressed its utmost concern about the damage to the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.

“UNESCO has confirmed what scientists have been saying for years:  urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming is essential for the survival of coral reefs into the future.

“As UNESCO states, this means all countries must demonstrate the highest degree of ambition and leadership to secure the full implementation of the Paris Agreement and to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial limits.  But current global emissions put us on a path for warming beyond 2°C.

“As custodian of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia has primary responsibility for its protection.  But Australia’s emissions continue to rise and it is not doing its fair share to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5°C.  Now, more than ever, Australia must take strong action to reduce its emissions and remove its support for the development of polluting coal mines.”

Nicola Rivers, lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, said: “Australia has a clear legal responsibility under the World Heritage Convention to reduce its contributions to climate change.

“Wealthy polluting countries like Australia with World Heritage-listed coral reefs must do their fair share to reduce their own emissions and meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement.  But Australia is failing to fulfil its international legal responsibilities to protect the Great Barrier Reef.  Australia’s emissions continue to increase, not decrease, and it is very unlikely to meet its Paris commitments.

“To protect the Reef into the future, Australia must also become a world leader in the transition to renewable energy.  This means Australia must remove its support for new coal mines, which will lock in decades of emissions that harm the Great Barrier Reef.  We can either have coral reefs, or we can have dirty fuels.  We cannot have both.”

For background:

See: Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia, World Heritage and Climate Change: The Legal Responsibility of States to Reduce Their Contributions to Climate Change – A Great Barrier Reef Case Study (2017)

About Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia

Earthjustice is the largest nonprofit 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 a not-for-profit legal practice, 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.  


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