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The Great Barrier Reef should be put on a list of World Heritage Sites that are "in danger" due to damage caused by climate change, Unesco says.
The UN's cultural body says the world's biggest coral reef system should be downgraded to the list at a meeting next month.
It has urged Australia to take "accelerated action" on global warming.
But the Australian government said it would "strongly oppose" the recommendation.
The latest row is part of an ongoing dispute between Unesco and the Australian government over the status of the iconic site.
The reef, stretching for 2,300km (1,400 miles) off Australia's north-east coast, gained World Heritage ranking in 1981 for its "enormous scientific and intrinsic importance".
After Unesco first debated its "in danger" status in 2017, Canberra committed more than A$3 billion (£1.bn; $2.2bn) to improving the reef's health.
However, several bleaching events on the reef in the past five years have caused widespread loss of coral.
Scientists say the main reason is rising sea temperatures as a result of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
But Australia remains reluctant to commit to stronger climate action. It is one of the few OECD outliers still resisting pressure to sign up to a net zero emissions target by 2050.
The country, a large exporter of coal and gas, has not updated its climate goals since 2015. Its current emissions reduction target is 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030.
Environmental groups say the UN's decision highlights Australia's weak climate action.
"The recommendation from Unesco is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change," said Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.
But Canberra said it had been "stunned" by the decision, calling it a "backflip on previous assurances from UN officials" that the step would not be taken.
"Climate change is the single biggest threat to all of the world's reef ecosystems... and there are 83 natural World Heritage properties facing climate change threats so it's not fair to simply single out Australia," said Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
She told parliament: "Australia believes it is wrong to single out the best-managed reef in the world for this potential 'in danger' listing."
But the Unesco report said that despite government efforts, key targets on improving water quality in the reef had not been met.
These have been a tough few months for Australia and its climate change policy.
International pressure has been mounting on Scott Morrison's government to pledge net zero emissions by 2050 and the prime minister has time and time again refused to commit - including as recently as last week at the G7 meeting in the UK.
In his address to US President Joe Biden's virtual climate conference with global leaders in April, the prime minister said the country will "get there as soon as we possibly can," adding that "for Australia, it is not a question of if, or even by when, for net-zero but, importantly, how."
That in itself is at the heart of the problem. The 'when' is as crucial as the 'how' when it comes to climate change.
Scientists and global leaders say Australia is not doing enough and not going fast enough.
The Great Barrier Reef row between UNESCO and the Australian government is not new but it will be quite embarrassing if the country's World Heritage Site is downgraded to the "in danger" list.
It's another reminder that if Australia does not get serious about tackling climate change with clear and decisive measures, this will affect its standing in the world, not just diplomatically and economically but culturally too.
In December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said climate change had tipped the reef into "critical" condition.
And in 2019, Australia's own reef authority downgraded the reef's condition from poor to very poor in its five-year update.
If the reef is downgraded, it will be the first time a natural World Heritage Site has been placed on the "in danger" list primarily due to impacts of climate change.
Listing a site as "in danger" can help address threats by, for example, unlocking access to funds or publicity.
But the recommendation could affect a major tourism destination that creates thousands of jobs in Australia and was worth A$6.4bn prior to the pandemic.
China currently chairs Unesco, and there are reports that long-running tensions between Beijing and Canberra may have influenced the decision.
But environmental groups rejected any suggestion the recommendation was political.
Australia's Climate Council said the UN decision "brings shame on the federal government, which is standing by as the reef declines rather than fighting to protect it".
Image Source: Getty Images
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