Climate change threat to World Heritage sites

At the start of December 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) outlined the declining quality of UNESCO World Heritage sites in their third World Heritage Outlook report. Currently, 83 of the 252 natural World Heritage sites are under threat. While 16 sites have deteriorated since 2017, only 8 have improved. In total, IUCN have classed 63% of World Heritage sites as “good” or “good with some concerns”. 30% of sites are of “significant concern” and the latest figure show that 7% are in “critical shape”.  

Climate change now the biggest threat

For the first time since the IUCN started publishing its World Heritage Outlooks, climate change is the biggest threat to World Heritage Sites. Previously, the biggest threat were invasive alien species. While they are still a threat to such sites and threaten ecosystem integrity, climate change now has the biggest impact. 

33% of sites are threatened by climate change. Some of the many effects that climate change has brought include shrinking glaciers, the bleaching of coral reefs, and an increased frequency of fires, floods and droughts. In particular, droughts pose a threat to beech forests. Increasingly longer dry periods have already led to sharp declines in growth and resulted in the replacement of European beech stands in parts of Southern Europe.

“Natural World Heritage sites are amongst the world’s most precious places, and we owe it to future generations to protect them”

Bruno Oberle 
IUCN Director-General

Tackling the challenges 

Despite the significant threat that climate change poses, threats from direct human activity must not be neglected. Tourism, hunting and fishing, and livestock grazing have also adversely impacted World Heritage sites. 

The problems posed by climate change and other human activities also affect the UNESCO World Heritage (WH) Site ‘Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe’. A changing climate currently poses challenges to many component parts of the site, and is set to threaten more of the site in the future. The IUCN expects this to lead to a change in species composition and habitat shifting. This could result in drastic changes, resulting in the loss of the valuable natural processes currently present in the site. For instance, in Germany, some beech forests, outside and within World Heritage component parts, have started to experience an unprecedented dieback. Often, the extreme weather conditions contribute to critical stress levels, which are also influenced by forest fragmentation and use. The dieback itself seems to be a more or less complex process being influenced by local environmental and historical factors as well as fungal diseases or herbivorous insects. The current weakening of beech forests in Central Europe could be a prelude to climate change causing the loss of even greater swathes of beech forest stands in Germany and across the rest of Central Europe. 

However, BEECH POWER aims to mitigate the threats these forests are facing. This requires action in both the World Heritage Site and their corresponding buffer zone areas surrounding them. Through promoting action in these areas, BEECH POWER seeks to improve management quality and effectiveness in order to safeguard the ecological integrity and functionality of the World Heritage Site and its surrounding areas.