What is World Heritage List and why is Great Barrier Reef facing a downgrade?

The Great Barrier Reef near Australia may be downgraded as ‘endangered’ in the World Heritage listing this week. This has again focused everyone’s attention on the list people often know a bit less about. The common man may well have heard of the list. But for him, it’s often somewhat a static thing. Talk about intricacies and there are great chances of puzzled looks.

What is World Heritage List?

World Heritage List is a UNESCO list that mentions sites all over the world. These sites have historical, scientific, cultural or other forms of importance. When a site gets listed, it is demarcated by UNESCO as a protected site. 

Inclusion in the list increases chances of the site being better cared for and protected as it comes on international radar. The heritage list has helped conservation of sites all over the world.

The downgrade

The status of a partuicular site can be downgraded. The World Heritage List is not permanently fixed and sites can be downgraded or even deleted entirely on the UN body’s recommendation. While placement on the “in-danger” list is not considered a sanction — some nations have their sites added to gain international attention to help save them — others see it as a dishonour.

The Great Barrier Reef is facing the same fate.

The Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest living structure, visible from space — was added to the list in 1981 for its “superlative natural beauty” and extensive biodiversity.

Why could the reef lose its status?

The reef has suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years, by some measures losing half its corals since 1995 as ocean temperatures have climbed.

It has also been battered by several cyclones, as climate change drives more extreme weather, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish which eat the coral.

“It’s a warning to the international community and all of humanity that the coral ecosystem is in danger,” Fanny Douvere, the head of UNESCO’s World Heritage marine programme, said in June.

Australian government scientists say the corals have made a comeback over the past year, but acknowledge that will not improve the ecosystem’s “very poor” long-term outlook.

What is the likely outcome?

This is not the first time the UN has threatened to downgrade the reef’s World Heritage listing — furious lobbying by Australia prevented it in 2015.

The country created a “Reef 2050” plan and has poured billions of dollars into reef protection, including water quality improvements, in part to address the concerns.

While UNESCO has acknowledged these efforts, it has also taken aim at Australia for its lacklustre climate efforts as the government continues to resist calls to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

The decision now rests in the hands of the World Heritage Committee, but 12 other countries have proposed delaying the decision until 2023, after reported lobbying from Australian officials.

With 14 votes required to pass that submission, Australia would need to find just one other member to back that position, assuming it also votes in favour.

(With inputs from agencies)