Australia was singled out for special criticism in a report released on Friday (10 March) in Paris by lawyers from the USA’s biggest non-profit environmental law organisation Earthjustice and its equivalent Environmental Justice Australia.

Presented at the World Heritage Centre, IUCN, the report says that the World Heritage Committee can call nations to action to minimise non-climate reef threats, such as pollution and overfishing, while those with significant CO2 emissions and the means to take action have an additional obligation to reduce their contributions to climate change.

“Corals around the world are bleaching and dying because of ocean-warming and acidification caused by out-of-control greenhouse-gas emissions,” says Earthjustice lawyer and report author Noni Austin. “The plight of these corals is growing more dire every year. Without strong action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, many may not survive beyond 2050.

“In the past few years… elevated ocean temperatures have triggered wide-scale coral-bleaching events around the world, from the USA’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to France’s lagoons of New Caledonia, the Seychelles’ Aldabra Atoll and Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

“On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a staggering 22% of corals died in 2016 – the worst coral die-off in recorded history. On some reefs in the north, almost all the coral died. This is an international tragedy for our shared world heritage.”

Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Ariane Wilkinson comments: “Australia is custodian of the Great Barrier Reef and has primary responsibility under the World Heritage Convention to protect and conserve the reef. Our analysis shows that Australia is failing to fulfil its obligation.”

She called on the country to “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. Australia is failing miserably on both counts.”

Asked what sanctions could be brought to bear on offending nations, Noni Austin told Divernet: “Every year at its annual meeting, the World Heritage Committee makes specific recommendations to countries about actions that must be taken to protect World Heritage properties.

“These recommendations bring international attention to a government’s failure to protect a World Heritage property and, consequently, encourage governments to address the threats to a property. Australia’s ban on dumping of capital dredge spoil in 2015 was in part due to concerns expressed by the committee.

“The committee’s recommendations also educate and empower civil society, pressure financial institutions to withhold funding for fossil-fuel projects, and could potentially open the door to domestic litigation, all of which helps force government action to protect World Heritage properties.”

The report “World Heritage and Climate Change: The Legal Responsibility of States to Reduce Their Contributions to Climate Change – A Great Barrier Reef Case Study” can be downloaded here

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