Impact on natural World Heritage sites
According to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook – the first global assessment of natural World Heritage – climate change could soon become the most widespread threat to natural World Heritage sites. Climate change impact is already evident in 35 of 229 sites listed for their exceptional natural values.
While only coordinated global efforts can help address the threat of climate change, it is important to increase resilience of threatened sites by limiting other pressures to a minimum.
Marine and coastal sites are facing particular challenges due to sea level rise, ocean acidification, and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef system – rising water temperatures are causing coral bleaching, and ocean acidification is restricting coral growth and survival. In East Rennell, Solomon Islands, a World Heritage site listed as ‘in danger’ due to logging activities, the increasing salinity of Lake Tegano as a result of sea level rise has caused reduced freshwater supply and food shortages for the local communities.
Nature-based solutions to climate change
Natural World Heritage sites are not just iconic places with exceptional nature, they also provide benefits that contribute to human well-being, according to ‘The Benefits of Natural World Heritage’ study by IUCN and UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
Natural World Heritage sites contribute to global climate stability by storing significant amounts of carbon. Forests found in World Heritage sites across the tropical regions store 5.7 billion tons of carbon.
Two-thirds of natural sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are crucial sources of water and about half help prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides.
In India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans’ 2,200km mangrove coastline offers flood protection, which would otherwise require an investment of US$ 300 million in man-made infrastructure.
The Benefits report features a total of 23 case studies, including three which highlight how World Heritage sites contribute to responding to climate change:
- Sundarbans National Park (India) and The Sundarbans (Bangladesh)
- Ibiza, Biodiversity and Nature (Spain)
- Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (Canada)
A wilderness approach to help respond to climate change
Protecting wilderness areas under the World Heritage Convention and improving their connectivity would help respond to climate change and biodiversity loss, according to nature experts.
These large, intact landscapes play a crucial role in helping species survive climate change events by providing options such as refuge or dispersal. For example, the Guanacaste Conservation Area, a World Heritage site in Costa Rica, links coastal areas to mountain ranges, allowing plants and animals to move to higher ground in case of sea level rise or rising temperatures.
Out of 229 natural sites currently listed as World Heritage, 63 include large areas with wilderness values, covering over 85 million hectares in total – nearly two thirds of the land area in natural World Heritage sites. However, the World Heritage Convention provides little or no protection to many exceptional wilderness areas, which are now facing increasing global threats, particularly from industrial activities and climate change.
Eight out of 24 wilderness areas identified as globally important have less than 1% of their total area within natural World Heritage sites and two have no World Heritage protection at all, including the Chaco dry forests, South America’s largest forested area after the Amazonia.
IUCN is currently developing guidance on a wilderness approach under the World Heritage Convention, which will be launched at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress.