The COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference has served as a venue to announce pivotal pledges that will support increased protection of natural World Heritage. Forests, coastal and marine ecosystems found in UNESCO natural World Heritage sites are some of the most biodiversity-rich habitats on Earth and play a crucial role in climate regulation by absorbing and storing carbon.
World Heritage forests, whose combined area of 69 million hectares is roughly twice the size of Germany, hold an estimated 13 billion tonnes of carbon (Gt C) (which exceeds the carbon in Kuwait’s proven oil reserves) and absorb every year 190 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) (equivalent to roughly half the United Kingdom’s annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels). Marine sites also store carbon (known as blue carbon) at very high densities, in seagrass meadows, tidal marshes, and mangroves. While the 50 marine sites on the World Heritage List cover less then 1% of the ocean surface, they host over 20% of all the world’s blue carbon ecosystems and 15% of global blue carbon assets. However, according to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook of 2020, climate change is now the top threat to natural World Heritage sites. Maintaining ecological processes and their associated benefits to people, including climate regulation is therefore necessary to ensure that the integrity of these sites, as well as their carbon storage and sequestration functions, is preserved.
The COP26 World Leaders Summit announced the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Signed by more than 100 countries representing 90% of the globe’s forested land, the declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It also marks a commitment to strengthen efforts to develop policies and systems aimed at empowering communities and advancing forest conservation and restoration, sustainable land use, biodiversity and climate goals.
The UNESCO World Heritage Centre participated at COP26 in events organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on the high climate mitigation value of intact forests and on the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, respectively. The presentations advocated why UNESCO-designated sites should be considered as priority areas for climate change mitigation and ecosystem restoration as they present opportunities for win-win solutions to address climate change and halt the loss of biodiversity.
In a landmark event of COP26, the Presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama committed to step up the protection of one of the largest and most biologically rich corridor in the world that encompass four UNESCO marine World Heritage sites (the Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary in Colombia, the Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica, the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador and the Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection in Panama): the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor. This corridor covers over 500,000 hectares and is an important migratory route for sea turtles, whales, sharks and manta rays. With the signing of the declaration, the four countries will strengthen their protected areas and initiate a regional process that will include the possible establishment of a transboundary marine biosphere reserve that will encompass the four World Heritage sites. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre has supported the conservation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor for almost two decades. Following the 2004 signature of the "San José Declaration” by governments in the region, UNESCO launched the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape Project to support joint scientific research and strengthen capacity in surveillance and management. International cooperation was further strengthened through regional meetings organized and supported by the World Heritage Marine Programme in 2016 (Galápagos Islands) and 2017 (Area de Conservación Guanacaste).