Coalition believes it has numbers to stop Great Barrier Reef being listed as ‘in danger’

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Coalition believes it has numbers to stop Great Barrier Reef being listed as ‘in danger’

Exclusive: Diplomatic email suggests whirlwind lobbying trip by Sussan Ley has won over at least nine of 21 members on World Heritage Committee

Coral bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef

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Last modified on Tue 20 Jul 2021 23.37 EDT

Australia’s global lobbying offensive to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the world heritage “in danger” list has secured support from at least nine of the 21-member committee that will make the decision, according to a diplomatic email seen by Guardian Australia.

Australia’s Paris-based ambassador to Unesco, Megan Anderson, said in the email she believed the government had won enough support to delay the decision on the “in danger” listing until at least 2023.

It was sent on Saturday, shortly after the start of a two-week World Heritage Committee meeting in China that will decide whether to change the reef’s world heritage status. A decision on the reef is expected on Friday.

The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, was due to return to Australia overnight from an eight-day lobbying trip that included flights to Hungary, France, Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Oman and the Maldives.

The minister’s office said she had met ambassadors from 18 countries either face-to-face or virtually.

The trip was to lobby against a recommendation by the UN’s science and culture organisation, Unesco, that the reef be listed as “world heritage in danger” due to the impact of three mass coral bleaching events in five years, and slow progress to cut pollution from farms and properties.

If the committee agrees, it would be the first time a world heritage site has been placed on the list due to damage from climate change. The committee is chaired this year by China.

In the email, Anderson said Bahrain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mali, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, had indicated “they would like to co-author/co-sponsor” an amendment supporting Australia’s position. In a document tabled to the committee early Wednesday those countries, as well as Russia and Spain, are listed as backing Australia.

Anderson said Australia believed the level of support would “send a good message about consensus and that the committee would not need to spend a lot of time discussing [the reef]”.

The amendment, which was submitted by Bahrain, would require a Unesco monitoring mission to the reef and allow Australia to report back to the committee by December 2022. Any consideration for placing the reef on the danger list would be pushed back until at least 2023.

Last week, the Guardian revealed Australia had won the support of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to co-sponsor “amendments” to be put to the committee that would see a decision delayed until the 2023 meeting of the committee.

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Australia has argued Unesco did not follow the normal process because it did not carry out a monitoring mission before making its recommendation. Australia also argued the decision had been politicised.

Environment groups, prominent Australians and a lineup of international figures from the worlds of entertainment, science and conservation have all backed Unesco’s call.

Senior Unesco officials have repeatedly rejected claims due process had not been followed and said an “in danger” listing was a chance to rally the world to the reef’s plight.

Since the World Heritage Committee last considered the reef in 2015, corals across the world’s biggest reef system have been hit by mass bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

In the email, sent to ambassadors from more than 20 countries, Anderson supplied a scientific summary from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) which, she said, had found “widespread recovery of coral at key sites across the property”.

Record-breaking ocean temperatures over the Queensland reef in February 2020 led to the most widespread bleaching event on record. But since then, conditions have been benign, the Aims report said.

But the report said rising coral coverage was thanks to fast-growing species that were susceptible to storms and coral-eating starfish – and would probably be hit in the next bleaching event.

The minister has been flying in one of the RAAF’s three new Dassault Falcon 7X planes. Charges for previous ministerial flights on the same aircraft suggest the trips cost in the region of $4,200 an hour.

Last Thursday, the government hosted ambassadors from 13 countries and the EU for a day of snorkelling on Agincourt Reef, off Port Douglas, with reef envoy Warren Entsch.

Ley was accompanied on the Europe trip by the chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Josh Thomas.

Publicly available flight logs showed the RAAF plane crisscrossed Europe for meetings with members of the 21-country world heritage committee.

The plane landed in Budapest last Monday and then flew to Paris. On Wednesday, the plane flew to Madrid and back. On Friday, there was a return trip to Sarajevo.

The jet then flew to the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, via Oman, on Monday, where Ley met with the country’s environment minister and the country’s special climate change envoy.

A spokesperson for the minister said there was “strong appreciation of the minister’s concerns in regard to the absence of process from Unesco”.

“The meetings included constructive and cordial conversations, including two with the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Unesco,” they said.

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Photograph: Tim Robberts/Stone RF

Australia had a strong relationship with all countries in the world heritage system, the spokesperson said, “as we work together to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage”.

Imogen Zethoven, a consultant on world heritage for the Australian Marine Conservation Society who has also been briefing countries on the reef, said: “The trip by minister Ley is all about politics ahead of conservation.”

“The government wants to defer any decision about the Great Barrier Reef until after the next election. I hope committee members can see through this,” she said.

Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF-Australia, said the recommendation from Unesco to the committee was “based on the best available science”.

‘”It contains recommendations that are urgently needed to give the reef a fighting a chance.

“We urge the committee to assess whether to implement this draft decision based on the integrity of the science, not based on the lobbying efforts of the Australian government.”

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