Sydney Aquarium divers unveil a Greenpeace banner urging UNESCO to save the Great Barrier Reef on March 5, 2012.
Sydney Aquarium divers unveil a Greenpeace banner urging UNESCO to save the Great Barrier Reef on March 5, 2012. - 
Listen To The Story

Jeremy Hobson: One of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life is under water -- the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. And the United Nations World Heritage Organization, UNESCO, says the reef may soon be on its endangered list. That's if Australia doesn't control its industrial development in the next eight months.

Stuart Cohen reports from Sydney.

Stuart Cohen: UNESCO is the U.N. agency dedicated to protecting the globe's natural and cultural beauty, and it's just given Australia a deadline. The Aussies have eight months to get industrial development along the Barrier Reef coast under control, or the popular marine sanctuary will go on the U.N.'s endangered list.

UNESCO says it's worried about Australia's plans to greatly expand coal and gas mining in the coming years, with thousands more ships carrying that cargo to China.

Environmentalists, like Larissa Waters of Australia's Green Party, call the report a slap in the face for the country.

Larissa Waters: They've recommended that there be no new ports. That our reef not be turned into a coal and gas highway, but that it actually be protected and treated like a world heritage icon.

But Campbell Newman, the new conservative premier for the state that's home to the reef, says protecting it shouldn't be more important than protecting people.

Campbell Newman: We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals and schools and police on the beat, we all need to understand that. We will protect the environment, but we're not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down.

If Australia can't meet the February deadline, the Great Barrier Reef could join 35 other World Heritage Sites on the endangered list, like religious sites in Afghanistan ravaged by the Taliban or nature preserves across Africa threatened by decades of poaching and political instability.

In Sydney, I'm Stuart Cohen for Marketplace.