UNESCO had suggested that the World Heritage Committee add the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world off the northeast Australian coast of Australia to the World Heritage in Danger List, mainly because of rising ocean temperatures.
The "in danger" question was deferred to 2023 by Australian-proposed amendments at a Chinese committee meeting on Friday.
A monitoring mission will be sent to the reef in the interim to assess the effects of climate change.
Apart from Australia, representatives of 16 of 21 nations on the committee spoke in support of the amendments. The position was accepted by the committee without any vote. Norway was the only country to argue that the reef should be "in danger". The committee typically makes consensus decisions.
Sussan Ley, Australian Environment Minister, told the virtual meeting that it was absurd to downgrade the status of the reef before the committee had completed its own climate change policy.
"Delegates," she stated from Australia. She was in quarantine having lobbied delegates in Europe, the Middle East and Asia on the decision.
Australia was warned in 2014 that an "in-danger" listing was being looked at, rather than being offered for immediate action.
Australia was able to respond quickly by creating the Reef 2050 Plan, a long-term plan for improving the health of the reef.
Australia was furious when the draft decision to remove the network covering 348,000 km (134,000 miles) of reefs from the World Heritage List it joined 40 year ago for its "outstanding universal worth" was published last month.
"This decision was flawed. Ley stated at the time that there was clearly politics behind this decision.
Many Australian conservatives saw this as an attempt to press the government into agreeing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by zero by 2050, and to end the expansion of coal mines.
This week, the Chinese host to the Fuzhou committee meeting defended the "in danger" listing. The Australian government was suspicious that China had influenced the listing for political reasons.
"Australia, as a member of the World Heritage Committee should... attach significance to the opinions of advisory bodies and earnestly fulfil the duty of World Heritage Protection instead of making groundless allegations against other states," stated Tian Xuejun (the vice minister of education in China) and president of this year’s session.
During the debate, China's representative stated that his country "supports" the emerging consensus to defer the "in Danger" question.
Jodie Rummer (a research fellow at The Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies) stated that the "in danger" classification was necessary to force Australia to take action on climate change.
Rummer said that Rummer believes that that is the wakeup call Australia needs. This is the wake-up call we need to shine a spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.
The delay makes it impossible for Australia to manage the reef. This issue will be a major issue in the next election due to take place by May 2012. At that time, the government will seek a fourth term of three years.