New Report Shows World Heritage Icons at Risk from Climate Change; Makes Far-Ranging Recommendations

PARIS (May 26, 2016)- Climate change is fast becoming one of the most significant risks for World Heritage sites, according to the report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” released today by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
US/ICOMOS is proud to have assisted with the preparation of the “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” report.  Andrew Potts, US/ICOMOS Executive Director said:

The new UNEP-UNESCO-UCS report makes an enormously valuable contribution to the climate change discourse.  Importantly, it highlights not only the fact that the World’s heritage is being put at risk by climate change but also that heritage is a source of resilience and guide to adaptation.  Unfortunately, the Report also demonstrates that far more needs to be done to mitigate the former and leverage the latter. We urgently need a systemic engagement both within the heritage community and by States, Parties, government policy makers, and tourism and industry authorities on the challenges and the opportunities called out by the Report.

Among several far-reaching recommendations, the Report found an urgent need to understand, monitor and respond better to climate change threats to World Heritage sites, as well as the interactions between climate change and the tourism sector. The requirements of the binding Policy Document on the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Properties that was adopted by the General Assembly of States Parties to the World Heritage Convention at its 16th session (Paris, 2007), as well as the 2006 Strategy to Assist States Parties to the Convention to Implement Appropriate Management Responses, should be fully implemented and consideration should be given to updating these documents which are now almost 10  years old.  Other recommendations include:

  • Using archaeological data and cultural heritage to increase climate resilience for the future.
  • Makeing climate vulnerability assessment part of the World Heritage site nomination and inscription process.
  • Including cultural heritage in climate vulnerability assessments and policy responses at all levels, from the local to the international.
  • Fully integrating climate change impacts and preparedness into national and site-level tourism planning, policies and strategies.
  • Ensuring that indigenous peoples and local communities are fully involved at all stages of climate adaptation and tourism development.
  • Establishing targeted programmes to raise awareness among tourists, guides, site managers and local communities about the values and protection needs of World Heritage in a changing climate.

“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites,” said Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”
The new report lists 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are vulnerable to increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons. It documents climate impacts at iconic tourism sites – including Venice, Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands – and other World Heritage sites such as South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom; the port city of Cartagena, Colombia; and Shiretoko National Park in Japan.  Three United States sites were evaluated including Yellowstone National Park, the Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park.  Old Town Lunenburg in Canada was also evaluated.
“Climate change is affecting World Heritage sites across the globe,” said Adam Markham, lead author of the report and Deputy Director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS. “Some Easter Island statues are at risk of being lost to the sea because of coastal erosion. Many of the world’s most important coral reefs, including in the islands of New Caledonia in the western Pacific, have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching linked to climate change this year. Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status.”
“World governments, the private sector and tourists all need to coordinate their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and to protect the world’s most treasured cultural and natural resources from the impact of tourism activities” said Elisa Tonda, UNEP’s head of the Responsible Industry and Value Chains Unit.
“Policies to decouple tourism from natural resource impacts, carbon emissions and environmental harm will engage a responsible private sector and promote change in tourists’ behaviour to realise the sectors’ potential in some of the world’s most visited places.”

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