The Great Barrier Reef has narrowly avoided being placed on the UN's "in danger" list, despite unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching episodes.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee announced at its 41st congress in Krakow, Poland, on Wednesday evening that it would adopt a draft decision that keeps the reef off the committee's "in danger" list, following a similar decision in 2015.
The Australian government will still have to report back to the UN on the reef's progress in 2019.
An "in danger" listing would have had severe consequences for Queensland's tourism industry, with fears overseas visitors would avoid the reef if it was perceived to be degraded.
The announcement is a welcome reprieve for the Australian government, following 18 months of bad news for the reef – but the UNESCO decision contained dire warnings for the future.
The draft report noted that the Australian government's Reef 2050 program, which outlines the government's plan to return the reef to full health, is behind schedule.
"Despite the positive achievements in the Plan’s inception ... progress towards achieving water quality targets has been slow, and the most immediate water quality targets set out in the [Reef 2050 plan] are not expected to be achieved within the
foreseen timeframe," it stated.
The report also noted that climate change remains the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef 2050 plan contains only a cursory mention of climate change.
Professor at the Climate Council Will Steffen warned that UNESCO's decision should not bring about a sense of complacency.
“This UNESCO decision doesn’t change the situation we are facing, the science says without a doubt, that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger,” he said.
“The biggest threat to the reef by far is increasing ocean temperatures, driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Unless Australia joins the rest of the world in adopting very strong climate and energy policies, the reef will have very little chance of surviving.”
Green groups have slammed the decision, saying it will not change the reality in the water, where reefs are only just beginning to recover from the worst bleaching crisis in history.
Greenpeace campaigner Alix Foster Vander Elst said the government could not claim to be serious about saving the reef while backing the controversial Adani coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin.
"The government says one thing, but does another on the reef,” said Foster Vander Elst.
“Queensland and Australian government ministers say they are committed to preserving the reef for future generations, but their actions make it quite clear they do not care enough to do what we need to save it.”
A UNESCO report released in June found that global coral reefs would all but disappear by 2100 if carbon emissions aren't dramatically reduced.
Australian environment minister Josh Frydenberg tweeted that the Reef 2050 plan is "on track", but that's not entirely true.
The report states that "the implementation of the Plan will need to accelerate to ensure that the intermediate and long-term targets ... are being met."
Frydenberg told BuzzFeed News the government will heed UNESCO's advice.
“We agree with the World Heritage Committee’s assessment that meeting our water quality targets is essential to protect the reef," he said.
“This is why we have accelerated our effort and investment in water quality and we are seeing progress towards our targets.
“The majority of our investment in the Reef 2050 Plan actions are focused on water quality – $573 million over the next five years.”
The minister said the threat posed to the reef by climate change will be addressed by Australia's commitment to the Paris Climate Accord.
“While climate change is a global challenge, the Australian and Queensland governments are considering what further action can be undertaken locally to mitigate its effect on the reef.
“We’re expecting further advice from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and reef advisory bodies soon.”