UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has given Australia until February to prove it’s protecting the Great Barrier Reef or it will be listed as “in danger”.

Australia is on track to save the Great Barrier Reef from being labelled an “in danger” World Heritage site, despite approving a massive dredging project within its boundaries.

UNESCO’s world heritage committee has been threatening to add Australia to its list of shame for two years, but has now welcomed progress and delayed its decision until February 2015.

“UNESCO is confident the overall direction towards next year’s decision is a positive one,” the committee’s Kishore Rao said.

At its annual meeting in Doha overnight, the committee said it regretted the Abbot Point port expansion.

Three million cubic metres of dredge spoil will be dumped in waters 20km from the reef, despite indications a less impacting alternative may exist.

There was also uncertainty about the impact of dredge plumes reaching beyond the disposal site.

Concerns were also reiterated about the handover of environmental approval powers from the federal to the Queensland government, which were labelled “premature”.

Queensland environment minister Andrew Powell said dumping the spoil in water was the cheapest and most environment-friendly option, and the decision won’t be reversed.

Dumping it on land, in an adjacent wetlands, would have turned the soil acidic, the government argued.

Mr Powell said the committee recognised there was less agricultural run off into the reef and welcomed the state’s new port strategy, which limited development to five areas.

The extension will give Australia enough time to produce two reports requested by the committee and prevent the listing.

“UNESCO’S decision comes as no surprise,” Mr Powell told reporters in Doha.

“It also tells us that they expect a bit more work to be done – we’re doing that work.

“I’m very confident that we’ll meet those expectations by this time next year.”

The Greens environment spokeswoman Larissa Waters said Australia now had its third and final warning.

“By next year, we need to have radically turned around what we’re doing to the reef,” Ms Waters told the ABC.

“We need to stop pop marking it with ports, stop handing powers to the Queensland government to put them in sole control of the reef and stop approving everything until you’ve finished the planning for the reef.”