Minister Ley interview ABC Radio Sydney

24 July 2021


LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Now, overnight, the Great Barrier Reef won’t be added to UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger this year. That decision came through last night. The UN body agreeing to reconsider its inclusion in 2022. Now, this comes just a month after UNESCO's scientific advisors recommended adding the reef to this list, mostly because of the impacts of climate change. There was a whirlwind diplomatic mission by our Environment Minister, and it gained enough support to override this recommendation for now, with 12 countries moving a motion reconsider it at that later meeting. Now, earlier, you heard from Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Joining me now is the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley. Good morning.
SUSSAN LEY: Good morning, Laura, and good morning to your listeners.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Now, you personally lobbied hard to avoid inclusion on the list on what's been reported as a whirlwind tour of Europe. Why does the Government not want the Great Barrier Reef declared in danger?

SUSSAN LEY: It doesn't meet the requirements for immediate in danger listing. In fact, in the final decision, the words in danger weren't used at all. And as you mentioned, the recommendation of the scientific bodies was about an endangered listing, because of the global challenge of climate change. And, if you like, calling out the Great Barrier Reef as an icon, which we know it is, and representing the pressures that it is under, because of climate change, pressures that I have never shied away from. Of course we know, and that's why we're building the health and the resilience of the reef with $3 billion of funding. But, you know, in danger listing, and certainly immediate in danger listing, Laura, is usually reserved for countries where a problem has been raised by UNESCO, there's been consultation, and they haven't done what they've been asked to do in terms of managing their site. And that's not the case...

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: [Interrupts] What was the final wording, Minister, sorry? You said it wasn't…

SUSSAN LEY: Well, there were 10 paragraphs. But, put simply, they will come and do a reactive monitoring mission, which was the number one thing I wanted. They haven't been here to have a look at the work we're doing since 2012, and reconsider it at the next meeting. So that's a great outcome for Australia, because what we want to do is showcase the work that we're doing. And it is a win for reef managers, community scientists, traditional owners, tourism operators, and the 64,000 Australians who depend on the reef economy. So much good work is happening. UNESCO's scientific bodies didn't use the latest data. And they also, as I said, acknowledge that they weren't criticising Australia's management of its reef. They actually went out of their way to say what a good job we're doing. But they wanted to say also that there is a global challenge of climate change. However, the countries around the table recognise that this is not a responsibility that Australia could wear on its own. This is something the whole world has to manage in terms of climate and what we do about it.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Without the lobbying, without your trip to Europe and going to all the different places and all the different entries to lobby for this, would it have happened?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I think the personal interventions, the looking someone in the eye, the explanation, and the representation did make a difference. Now there's a whole team working hard to do this. We did it for the reef communities, for their lives and livelihoods. We did it for Australia's international reputation, and the message was well-received. Now, I'd encourage anyone to look at- I'm sure the transcripts will be out of what the countries said around the table last night. And, you know, Australia's work in world heritage was warmly recognised, our contribution to the convention, our willingness to work with all parties. But also many countries said: look, this is a problem, the challenge of global climate change is one that all countries have to sign up to, and we need to treat all properties and same. So there's 82 properties that are rated at high or very high risk of climate change in the UNESCO- in the World Heritage books, so to speak. Only one was singled out at this meeting. And we need, and there is going to be, a protocol that looks at how all properties are responded to with respect to climate change. So Australia was asking for a fair deal, but we're also making clear that we weren't accepting a process that was against our national interest and made no sense.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Why would the scientific advisors make this draft recommendation then last month? You called the decision at the time political. But, you know, what part of the past month of lobbying wasn't political?

SUSSAN LEY: You would have to ask them about the reasons for their recommendation. I did ask them, and they did say that they wanted to call out the challenge of global climate change, and they used the word global. And they also said that they recognise the strong work we're doing on our reef. They hadn't looked at the latest update to the Reef 2050 Plan, which was developed after the last time that the Great Barrier Reef was focused on within the World Heritage Convention. At that stage, there were issues of dredge spoil going into the reef, and work up and down the coastline has since responded to water quality. And we know that we have a 35-year plan to turn this around, but we also know that we have a $3 billion investment. So the technical bodies, in my view, seem to be in two minds. They just wanted to highlight climate change more broadly, but not recognising that that belongs in a different convention. So the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the place where you discuss an individual country's policies. And by the way, we are signed up to Paris, and we are meeting and meeting and beating our targets. So as…

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: [Interrupts] Yet, we're at the bottom of the list.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we're not. What list?

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: The list of countries that are taking proactive action for climate change, developed countries.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I don't know what list you're looking at, Laura. What I can say is that at 1.3 per cent of global emissions, meeting and beating our Paris targets, and indeed, working internationally with the technology roadmap that we have that actually shares the science that will transition us to a low-carbon economy. Australia is well and truly playing its part. And actually, when I had those conversations with countries, they often said to me: we didn't as you were doing so much, we didn't realise what you were doing. I talked about our Oceans Leadership package of $100 million. I talked about what's happening on the reef. And look, to be honest, a lot of countries weren't aware of that. But most importantly, the World Heritage Convention is about how you manage your site, and Australia is doing an amazing job building the health and resilience of the reef, while not stepping back from the fact that climate change is a huge threat.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Minister, what are your immediate concerns about the effects of climate change on the reef?

SUSSAN LEY: Three back-to-back bleaching events, but the latest science shows that there is good coral recovery. And I think that's an important factor that actually wasn't looked at by the committee. They hadn't interrogated the latest data. Of course, all coral reefs - and there are probably, I think, 29 on the world heritage books - all coral reefs are under threat from climate pressure. And not all coral reefs manage their sites the way we do, which is why I think other countries were looking at Australia and saying: well, if you're going to be called out for this immediate in danger listing, what does that say for the need for us to be encouraged with the work that we have to do on our reefs? So it wasn't a good message to send to the international community, and it wasn't a good message to encourage all countries to do their very best. But remember, Australia led the way in saying to the convention: we need to do something about a protocol that looks at the effect of climate change on all World Heritage properties. And we're still in there, having that discussion; we're responsible members of the convention. But we weren't going to be called out on this.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: The list I was referring to earlier was a UN-backed Sustainable Development Solutions Network Report. The latest edition saying that Australia has ranked last for climate change out of the 193 member states of the United Nations. I do have a text here as well from Yvonne at Miranda asking: can you please ask Sussan Ley what happened to the $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. What has been achieved and where do we find a report from that foundation to see what is being done with all that money? Thank you.

SUSSAN LEY: Those reports do exist, and I can assure your caller that that money is translated into citizen science, active land management, supporting work with traditional owners out on the water, as I call it, eyes on the reef, Crown-of-thorns starfish work, and general involvement that will see a real response, and particularly for the communities that are involved. But yes, there's no suggestion that that is not being accounted for. And I'm sure I'll find a way to send that report to you, and you can pass it on.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: And finally, Minister, what is the Federal Government doing now? What are you actively going to do before the next meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage committee? Because it is going to reconsider putting it on this list again in a year's time.

SUSSAN LEY: We will prepare a state of conservation report, and much of that is already in our updated Reef 2050 Plan. So, we have a lot of information to share with the committee. I come back to my point that I just want them to come and have a look, and then they will consider that. And they will put together what's called a reactive monitoring mission. I'm not sure when they'll be able to do that because of COVID, but we welcome them anytime they can come, and we welcome showing them the science. And at the same time, working hard to acknowledge that we need to treat all properties within the convention that are affected by climate change in the same way.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Minister, thank you so much for your time.

SUSSAN LEY: It's a pleasure.

LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: That's the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley there.