10 March 2017
Lawyers set path for World Heritage Committee to call nations to action to protect threatened corals from climate change
Lawyers briefing World Heritage Centre, IUCN on the obligations of nations with World Heritage-listed coral reefs to act on climate change
A report by lawyers at Earthjustice and Environmental Justice Australia, being launched today in Paris, outlines the international legal responsibilities of nations with World Heritage-listed coral reefs to take action to protect those reefs from the devastating effects of climate change.
The legal report, World Heritage and Climate Change: The Legal Responsibility of States to Reduce Their Contributions to Climate Change – A Great Barrier Reef Case Study, provides a framework within which the World Heritage Committee can call those nations to action before it is too late to save these ecosystems that are at the heart of some of the world’s most iconic natural heritage.
Grounded in the obligations of nations under the World Heritage Convention, as well as globally accepted principles of responsibility for environmental harm, the report concludes that all nations with World Heritage-listed corals must minimise non-climate reef threats such as pollution and overfishing. Nations with significant carbon dioxide emissions and substantial economic and technical capacity to act have an additional obligation to take serious and effective action to reduce their contributions to climate change, including by not authorizing the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
The legal team is in Paris today to launch their legal analysis, and to urge World Heritage Committee delegates and advisers to support a call to states with World Heritage-listed coral reefs to fulfil their responsibility to protect reefs threatened by climate change.
Earthjustice lawyer and report author Noni Austin said, “In 2017, the World Heritage Committee has an opportunity and a responsibility to protect World Heritage-listed coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, from the devastating effects of climate change.”
“This report provides a framework for the Committee’s assessment of the international legal obligations of countries with World Heritage-listed coral reefs.”
“Corals around the world are bleaching and dying because of ocean warming and acidification caused by out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions. 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, the effect of climate change on corals has been made frighteningly evident. Elevated ocean temperatures have triggered wide-scale coral bleaching events around the world, from the United States’ Papahānaumokuākea 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.”
“Our legal analysis finds that, under the World Heritage Convention, states with World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are also responsible for substantial historical or current greenhouse gas emissions and with more financial and technical capacity need to do their fair share to reduce their own emissions, and must ensure they do not authorize or facilitate the development of new sources of emissions or new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure.”
Ariane Wilkinson, lawyer at not-for-profit law firm Environmental Justice Australia, said: “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 fulfill its obligation under the World Heritage Convention to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of climate change.”
“In light of Australia’s resources, capacity to act, and very high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, Australia must take two urgent steps to protect the Reef and meet its obligations under the World Heritage Convention. It must 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,” Ms Wilkinson said.
“Australia is failing miserably on both counts. Instead of fulfilling its obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef from future devastating coral bleaching events, Australia is failing to do its fair share to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and is unlikely to meet its inadequate commitments under the Paris Agreement,” she said.
“Further, Australia is permitting the development of massive new coal mines that will contribute substantially to climate change and to the further deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef. This is nothing short of negligent, given its obligations to protect our priceless World Heritage,” Ms Wilkinson continued.
For backgrounding and comment:
Noni Austin, Australian and US lawyer, Project Coordinator, Earthjustice’s International Program (based in San Francisco)
+1 415 217 2147.
Ariane Wilkinson, Australian lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia (based in Melbourne, Australia)
+61 403 364 771
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.