At least 33 percent of natural World Heritage sites are threatened by climate change, the UN observer body says. These sites include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the world’s largest coral reef.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisory body on nature to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, has been preparing a report on World Heritage sites every three years since 2014. This year’s report, the authors say, is alarming.

“Natural World Heritage sites are amongst the world’s most precious places, and we owe it to future generations to protect them,” says Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 reveals the damage climate change is wreaking on natural World Heritage, from shrinking glaciers to coral bleaching to increasingly frequent and severe fires and droughts. As the international community defines new objectives to conserve biodiversity, this report signals the urgency with which we must tackle environmental challenges together at the planetary scale.”

According to the authors of IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3, since 2017, “more sites deteriorated than improved. A comparison between 2017 and 2020 shows that a total of 24 sites changed their overall conservation outlook, with 16 deteriorating and only 8 improving.”

The authors also write that “Worryingly, two sites have entered the critical category since 2017: the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) and the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (Mexico).”

The authors call “World Heritage sites … internationally recognised areas of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) – places so valuable that the importance of their conservation transcends boundaries, cultures and generations.” There are 1,121 in total at the time of the report’s writing.

A subset of the World Heritage sites, “Natural World Heritage sites are celebrated as the most significant protected areas on Earth, boasting large intact land and seascapes. There are 252 natural sites inscribed as of the date of publication of this report, including 39 sites classified as “mixed” (natural and cultural), which hereafter we refer together simply as natural World Heritage sites.”

The authors caution that “While the number of these sites is relatively small, they cover over 369 million hectares of land and sea, an area larger than the size of India. Their coverage represents about 8% of the total area covered by more than 259,000 protected areas globally.”

IUCN calls the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra
IUCN calls the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra "critical". (Dennis Keller / Courtesy of IUCN)

The IUCN website says “Climate change is now the biggest threat to natural World Heritage,” adding that “A third (33%) of natural World Heritage sites are threatened by climate change, including the world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, assessed as having a “critical” outlook for the first time.”

The IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3, “finds that climate change has overtaken invasive species as the top threat to natural World Heritage.”

Of the 252 natural World Heritage sites (including “mixed” ones), 83 are threatened by climate change. Included among the 83 is “the Great Barrier Reef, where ocean warming, acidification and extreme weather have contributed to dramatic coral decline, and as a result decreasing populations of marine species.”

Moreover, it should be mentioned that “in the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas of South Africa, climate change has exacerbated the spread of invasive species, while the Pantanal Conservation Area of Brazil was badly damaged by the unprecedented 2019-2020 wildfires. In Kluane Lake, located in a World Heritage site in Canada and the USA, the rapidly melting Kaskawulsh Glacier has changed the river flow, depleting fish populations.”

According to IUCN, “Invasive alien species, assessed as the most common threat both in 2014 and 2017, follows closely behind climate change as the second most common current threat in 2020. It is followed by impacts from a range of threats derived from human activities: tourism visitation, hunting, fishing, water pollution, fires and logging.”

IUCN warns that despite belief that the coronavirus pandemic has caused “a decrease in pressure from tourism visitation on natural ecosystems” it has actually negatively affected the natural World Heritage sites: “The closing of sites to tourism causes significant revenue loss, and has limited in-person staffing in some sites, which can lead to reduced control over illegal activities. These factors, in addition to loss of livelihoods from tourism in some sites, are increasing the risk of wildlife poaching and illegal use of natural resources for several sites.”

Kawi Falls in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. IUCN labels the region as causing 'significant concern'.
Kawi Falls in Canaima National Park, Venezuela. IUCN labels the region as causing 'significant concern'. (Fernando Flores / Courtesy of IUCN)
Source: TRT World