Story | 25 Apr, 2022

IUCN World Heritage Outlook as a tool for measuring protected areas’ effectiveness

Formally recognised as the planet’s most significant protected areas, World Heritage sites are regularly assessed and monitored, enabling valuable data to be gathered on a range of factors including protection and management. Assessing all sites listed for their natural values, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook can contribute to an understanding of protected areas’ effectiveness at a time when the international community sets out new targets under the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

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Photo: IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3

The new global biodiversity framework is central to discussions at the resumed meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that took place from 14 to 29 March 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland. A key target being discussed under this framework focusses on increasing the coverage of protected and conserved areas, with ambitions from many that their total area reaches 30% of the Earth by 2030. This “30x30” increase in the quantity of the world’s total protected and conserved areas is crucial to safeguard biodiversity but to be successful in achieving conservation outcomes must be accompanied by an assurance of quality to ensure the effectiveness of protected and conserved areas.

Although there are over 270,000 protected and conserved areas worldwide, data on the effectiveness of their protection and management is currently scarce. Yet this data is crucial to inform decisions and determine whether efforts are sufficient to meet the transformative ambition of the new global biodiversity framework. This lack of data was identified as a key challenge in the Protected Planet Report 2020, and UNEP-WCMC and IUCN are working to address this through the development of a roadmap towards meaningful indicators on the effectiveness of protected and conserved areas.

This roadmap has been informed by a series of workshops with experts, CBD Parties, and representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities, whose inputs will inform recommendations for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. These recommendations are expected to include the adoption of indicators that encompass not just the quantity, but the quality, of protected and conserved areas. But in order to be useful, the indicators will rely on data gathered at the level of individual protected and conserved areas – data on governance quality, management effectiveness, and the quality of conservation outcomes.

By assessing all natural World Heritage sites every three years, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook provides an invaluable example of consistent data gathering on site values, threats, and protection and management, and provides an assessment of sites’ conservation prospects. Thus, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook provides a simple methodology to assess protection and management for a meaningful subset of protected areas, presenting an initial picture on effectiveness and associated trends.

Although there are relatively few natural World Heritage sites compared to other types of protected areas, they cover very large areas that represent some of the most important areas for nature. The 257 sites currently inscribed on the World Heritage List for their natural values protect about 7.4% of the world’s total protected lands and seas. In 42 countries, the extent of World Heritage sites is more than 10% of all national protected areas.

These sites enjoy the highest level of international recognition through the 1972 World Heritage Convention, as places so valuable that their conservation transcends boundaries, cultures and generations. They are areas of stunning natural beauty, which not only harbour unique ecosystems and rare species, but also reflect a collective commitment to safeguarding the planet’s most precious places for future generations. Our ability to secure the highest quality of protection to natural World Heritage sites is therefore a litmus test of the effectiveness of conservation action more broadly.

Building on three cycles of assessments since 2014, the results of the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 published in November 2020 are however sobering: just two-thirds of the sites have a positive conservation outlook. More sites have deteriorated than have improved since 2017 and threats to their values continue to escalate, with climate change now the biggest of them all.

Only half of natural World Heritage sites are considered to have effective protection and management, according to the IUCN Outlook. Critical aspects such as sustainable financing, law enforcement and staffing remain of serious concern, reinforcing the need for adequate resources and capacity to effectively protect and manage protected areas.

Beyond percentages, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook collects the stories of determination and success happening on the ground, which are detailed in the 252 Conservation Outlook Assessments available online on worldheritageoutlook.iucn.org. Many of these sites offer examples of effective management for species and habitat conservation that can inspire solutions to be replicated elsewhere.

Each natural World Heritage site is special in its own way and provides a unique set of benefits and ecosystem services. Collectively, they make a substantial contribution to global biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, climate action, and ultimately the quality of life on Earth. Examining the successes and challenges of preserving these places provides an indicator of what is happening to biodiversity more broadly.

Through the IUCN World Heritage Outlook, we can see whether current conservation measures are sufficient, if more must be done, and where. Going forward, this initiative provides valuable lessons for how monitoring of protected and conserved area effectiveness can be scaled up, supporting the successful implementation of the next generation of conservation goals.

Peter Shadie, IUCN and Heather Bingham, UNEP-WCMC

This story is part of a series of quarterly blog posts published in complement to the Live Protected Planet report, which you are invited to explore at https://livereport.protectedplanet.net/