Unesco expresses concern over bushfire damage to Australia's Gondwana-era rainforests

Adam Morton Environment editor

The Unesco world heritage centre has expressed concern about bushfire damage to the Gondwana-era rainforests of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and asked the Australian government whether it is affecting their world heritage values.

In a statement on its website, the centre said members of the media and civil society had asked about the bushfires affecting the area inscribed on the world heritage list as the “Gondwana rainforests of Australia”.

“The World Heritage Centre is currently verifying the information with the Australian authorities, in particular regarding the potential impact of the fires on the outstanding universal value of the property,” the statement says.

Related: Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year's fires unprecedented?

“The centre has been closely following-up on this matter and stands ready to provide any technical assistance at the request of Australian authorities.”

Scientists say the bushfires this spring have been unprecedented, in part because they have destroyed areas that have historically been too wet to burn. The affected area includes parts of the major remaining rainforest areas in south-east Queensland and north-east NSW, which are listed as one world heritage site.

The world heritage area includes the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on the planet, some warm temperate rainforest and nearly all the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. It consists of about 40 separate reserves, spread between Newcastle and Brisbane, and surrounded by fire-prone eucalypt forest and farms.

The centre says the rainforests are “outstanding examples of major stages of the Earth’s evolutionary history, ongoing geological and biological processes, and exceptional biological diversity”.

Related: Australia pressures Unesco over impact of climate change on Great Barrier Reef

A spokesman for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, confirmed the government had received correspondence from the World Heritage Centre about the current fires and said the Department of Environment and Energy was working with state agencies to prepare a response. “These agencies are still engaged in firefighting operations and assessment of fire impacts on the world heritage property is ongoing,” he said.

The spokesman said all parks and reserves were covered by a reserve fire management strategy to reduce wildfire risk but under extreme conditions the risk could not be eliminated. He said climate change had been identified as a threat to the outstanding universal values of Gondwana rainforests, and commonwealth and Queensland scientists were collaborating to better understand how it would affect the area.

“The research will be invaluable in underpinning adaptation measures,” he said.

Documents released under freedom of information laws show the Australian world heritage advisory committee warned the then environment minister, Melissa Price, in October 2018 that climate change had significant implications for world heritage properties. It said changes in species distribution and abundance were already being recorded at world heritage sites.

The Australian committee said while the people responsible for heritage properties could not address climate change, action must be taken to manage the impact. The federal government was urged to help site managers develop a coordinated adaptation response.

The Unesco world heritage committee has also been holding a review into how countries should manage the impact of the climate crisis on heritage sites.The Australian government has been pushing for the issue to be resolved before the committee reassesses the world heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef next year. It previously avoided the reef being listed as world heritage in danger.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy, said authorities charged with overseeing world heritage sites had been sounding the alarm about climate risk to the federal government, but their concerns appeared to have largely fallen on deaf ears.

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She said Unesco’s concerns about the rainforests mirrored the alarm being felt in Australia. “Many of these forests are supposed to be too wet to burn, but local and global inaction on climate change is supercharging the length, intensity and range of bushfire seasons,” she said.

O’Shanassy called on the government to invest more in improving the health of world heritage sites by tackling invasive species, connecting vegetated areas and halting land clearing. But she said the ultimate solution was to stop burning coal, gas and oil, and destroying forests.

“Australia must take stronger domestic action and leverage that into pushing for stronger global action so we do not lose our world heritage sites forever,” she said.