UNESCO Adopts Climate Change Strategy for World Heritage Sites

VILNIUS, Lithiuana, July 11, 2006 (ENS) - The UNESCO World Heritage Committee on Monday adopted a strategy of response to the threat that climate change poses to many World Heritage sites such as Mount Everest in Nepal and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The committee decided that sites affected by climate change could be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, on a case by case basis, and invited a study on alternatives to the Danger List for these sites.

Most natural ecosystems and heritage sites, both on land and in the sea, are at risk of being affected by climate change, the committee said.

"This is the start of a long process, which is important in that it helps draw attention to a far reaching issue," explained the chairperson of the 21 member World Heritage Committee, Ina Marciulionyte, Lithuania's ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO.

"Clearly, the causes and the effects of climate change cannot be solved in terms of World Heritage properties alone," she said. "But it is our duty to do whatever we can to protect World Heritage in keeping with our responsibility to implement the World Heritage Convention. This is what we are trying to do by initiating more studies and sharing experience."


Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, is threatened by global warming. (Photo by Steve Jones courtesy FreeFoto)
Created in 1972, UNESCO's World Heritage List covers 812 sites around the world. Located in 137 countries, 628 of the World Heritage sites are cultural, 160 are natural and 24 are mixed.

"As far as natural heritage is concerned, the vast majority of biomes may be adversely impacted by the effects of climate change," according to the strategy adopted by the World Heritage Committee.

"Conservation is the management of change, and climate change is one of the most significant global challenges facing society and the environment today," the strategy states.

The strategy includes preventive actions such as monitoring, reporting and mitigation of climate change effects through environmentally sound choices and decisions at individual, community, institutional and corporate levels.

It includes corrective actions such as adaptation through global and regional strategies and local management plans.

And the strategy encourages the sharing of knowledge, including best practices, research, communication, public and political support, education and training, capacity building, and networking.

In adopting this strategy, the World Heritage Committee endorsed the draft recommendations formulated by 50 international experts on climate change who met at UNESCO's Paris Headquarters in March.

The committee is asking all governments that are Parties to the World Heritage treaty to implement the strategy "to protect the outstanding universal value, integrity and authenticity of World Heritage sites from the adverse effects of climate change."

The committee also is asking the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies - the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the IUCN-World Conservation Union - and government Parties to make proposals for pilot projects at specific World Heritage properties, especially in developing countries, so as to define best practices for the strategy.

World Heritage sites affected by climate change include glaciers, coral reefs, mangroves, boreal and tropical forests, polar and alpine ecosystems, wetlands and grasslands, the committee said

Affected sites include two in the United States and Canada - the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park and the Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek heritage site, the committee said.


The twin peaks of Huascaran in the Peruvian Andes are at risk of global warming. (Photo courtesy RealPeru)
In addition, Huascarán National Park in Peru, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the Ilulissat Icefjord in Denmark, and the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System were also specifically mentioned as threatened.

Cultural sites are also in danger because of climate change. Rising sea levels are threatening coastal sites, such as the four World Heritage sites of London.

Desertification is threatening some sites, such as the three Great Mosques of Timbuktu in Mali. Rainfall and temperature changes can cause structural collapse and population movements due to climate change are expected to lead to the abandonment of some sites while placing others under stress.

The committee requested the World Heritage Centre to draft a policy document on the impact of climate change on World Heritage properties in consultation with experts, conservation practitioners, international organizations and civil society to be presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2007.

The draft policy document should include synergies between conventions dealing with this topic, it should identify research needs, and address legal questions on the role of the World Heritage Convention with regard to suitable responses to climate change, said the committee.

It should also define links with other United Nations and international bodies dealing with this issue.

Friends of the Earth International’s climate campaigner, Catherine Pearce said, “Climate change is already having a terrible impact on some of the world’s most spectacular natural heritage sites. But the World Heritage Committee can play a crucial role in trying to protect these sites for future generations. It must pledge immediate action to try and mitigate the threat these sites face, and make it clear to the international community that cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are urgently needed.”

Friends of the Earth is part of an international coalition of lawyers and environmentalists urging the committee to protect from global warming five of the world’s finest World Heritage Sites, including Mount Everest, Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal. The campaign has the backing of a number of eminent people, including Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first man to summit Everest, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

In a statement last year Sir Edmund said, "The warming of the environment of the Himalayas has increased noticeably over the last 50 years. This has caused several and severe floods from glacial lakes and much disruption to the environment and local people."

The other four sites for which the coalition is urging specific protection are:

Peter Roderick, co-director of the Climate Justice Programme, which is part of the coalition, said, "The dangers are clear, and the main cause of the problem is known. The Committee has a duty to protect these sites. It must uphold the World Heritage Convention as an effective international agreement and recognize the legal need for significant cuts in climate pollution.”


Clements Mountain in the U.S. Glacier National Park is also at risk of climate change. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
However, the United States government, which became a Member of the World Heritage Committee in October, made it clear in a position paper that it opposes moves by the committee to address the issue of climate change.

The United States' position paper casts doubt on the science of climate change, saying, "There is not unanimity regarding the impacts, causes, and how to or if man can affect the changes we are observing."

The U.S. says that the five sites put forward by petitioners for inclusion on the World Heritage In Danger List must have the support of the governments of countries where the sites are located, even though there are no UNESCO regulations specifying this.

"It continues to be the position of the USA that inclusion of any World Heritage Site on the List of World Heritage in Danger, even though not specifically articulated in Article 11.4 of the Convention, also requires consent of the State concerned," the position paper says.

Commenting on the U.S. position, Chris Wold, clinical professor of law and director of the International Environmental Law Project at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, lead petitioners on the Waterton petition, said, "The U.S. is wrong on the science, and it's wrong on the law."

In other action, the World Heritage Committee removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger a bird sanctuary in Senegal because improvements have been made at the site. Situated in the Senegal River delta, the Djoudj Sanctuary is a lake surrounded by streams, ponds and backwaters that shelters 1.5 million birds, such as the white pelican, the purple heron, and the African spoonbill.

The session opened during a gala evening at Vilnius Opera House on Saturday evening hosted by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who said many countries face similar problems in attempting to preserve their heritage.

"We have to resolve the constant dilemma of how to accommodate business and investment needs to heritage protection requirements and how to find a direct road to sustainable development," said President Adamkus.


Delegates at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Vilnius. July 10, 2006. (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
On Sunday, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura expressed the need for synergy between UNESCO's conventions on tangible heritage, intangible heritage, and diversity of cultural expressions.

"Cultural diversity is the ultimate purpose of our presence here," Matsuura said. "Indeed, you are gathered here to ensure that one of the most tangible aspects of the world's cultural diversity, tangible heritage, be preserved and looked after, to be bequeathed as undamaged as possible to future generations."

Africa is severely under-represented on the World Heritage List. Despite the continent's great cultural and natural diversity, only eight percent of the 812 World Heritage sites are to be found in Africa. They constitute 43 percent of sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

To remedy this deficiency, the African World Heritage Fund, to help African countries improve the preservation of their cultural and natural heritage and to help boost the number of African sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List, was launched in South Africa on May 5.

An immediate donation of 20 million rand (US$3.5 million) from the government of South Africa started the fund. On Sunday in Vilnius, the Fund received a pledge of €200,000 from The Netherlands and a pledge of US$50,000 from India.

The first fundraising campaign, initiated at the Fund's launch, seeks to achieve the initial target endowment of US$10 million. Without specifying the amounts that will be given: Algeria, Gabon, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Norway, Peru, Spain, and Tanzania pledged to support the Fund.