Addressing the existential threat: climate change as a catalyst for reform in World Heritage

Addressing the existential threat: climate change as a catalyst for reform in World Heritage

World Heritage Convention and Climate Change Roundtable Report
Australian Academy of Science
6 December 2021

Climate change is putting cultural and natural assets of the world at risk, and Australia is no exception with many of our World Heritage properties at high risk from climate change. The challenges that climate change poses to World Heritage properties is complex, requiring multidisciplinary expertise including technical and legal experts in natural and cultural heritage, climate change, and diplomacy. The ideas generated by this roundtable aim to help the World Heritage community address the threat of climate change by addressing collective challenges, rather than on a property-by-property basis.

The Academy held the roundtable from which this report was produced in consultation with the Australian Academy of Law.

Download the report (PDF, 1.4MB)

Read the media release

Executive summary

The challenge

  • Climate change is now one of the most significant threats to all World Heritage (WH) properties and is already the major threat to WH properties inscribed for natural values.
  • Climate change mitigation requires global efforts to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate a system. All countries need to undertake urgent, sustained and deep reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
  • Because global greenhouse gas reduction strategies are vital to the conservation of WH properties, for many World Heritage properties, it will ultimately be impossible to maintain the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) for which they were inscribed in the historical state, even if effective adaptation and on-site mitigation strategies are applied.
  • This situation poses a significant challenge to the operations of the WH system, which is also confronted by the increasing politicisation of decision-making and an ongoing insufficiency of resources.
  • The concept of OUV is at the core of the WH Convention and its processes. For many WH properties, OUV has been interpreted assuming that the environment is largely stationary, an assumption that is now incorrect.
  • For the WH system to be able to address climate change as well as these other challenges, reforms will need to be substantive. Although amendment of international conventions is notoriously difficult, the WH Convention is a treaty where many important matters are dealt with in subsidiary documents, especially its Operational Guidelines (OGs), which are much easier to amend, if the States Parties so wish. Nonetheless, effective operational reforms to the OGs in response to climate change are likely to be highly contested.
  • Our aim was to help protect the world’s most precious heritage places by developing a menu of ideas to facilitate the operational changes required for the WH system to address the consequences of climate change.


  • In consultation with the Australian Academy of Law, the Australian Academy of Science assembled online 18 Australian experts in climate science, climate vulnerability assessment, IPCC processes, cultural, natural and Indigenous heritage, outlook reporting, site management, WH system processes, environmental law, international law and diplomacy to develop this menu of ideas.
  • We did not aim to achieve consensus and not all participants supported every idea presented here. Our intent is to produce several outputs to contribute to global thinking about this issue rather than prescriptive outcomes or recommendations. This report is the foundation, comprehensive output.

Ideas for change

  • A major decision for the WH Committee will be to determine whether it is appropriate to allow the attributes the OUV of WH properties under the criteria for which they were listed to change within objectively defined limits. If so, Limits of Acceptable Change to integrity could be developed for all properties and to authenticity for properties listed under cultural criteria. The concept of Limits of Acceptable Change is not new to the WH system, but its use has been very limited and may require changes to some national laws.
  • Streamlined processes for variations to Statements of OUV within agreed limits could apply not only to the degradation of OUV from climate change, but also in other circumstances including positive changes in OUV. Consideration could be given to a system of approval of significant and minor changes to a statement of OUV, along the lines of significant and minor changes to property boundaries.
  • Widespread use of climate vulnerability assessments will be essential to several WH processes discussed in this report. Climate vulnerability assessment has already been used for some properties. Clear guidelines about the requirements for such assessments would need to be developed, noting national laws may affect the format of any assessment at the State Party level. There are extensive international parameters on cultural and natural impact assessment that should inform the basic parameters of such assessments.
  • We considered the proposal that climate change be explicitly considered in the nomination dossier and suggest that this dossier also be required to include: (a) a climate vulnerability assessment; and (b) a statement in the management plan of the active steps that will be undertaken to mitigate climate change (at the property level) and adapt to climate change impacts.
  • Ideas for changes to WH reporting include:
    1. increased State Party engagement in the State of Conservation process, especially in the development of realistic responses compatible with the capacity of the relevant State Party to deliver them
    2. Periodic Reporting that is thematic as well as geographic
    3. the WH Centre seeking to work closely with the IPCC to develop a special report on WH and Climate Change
    4. replacing the existing reporting processes with a new system, which is based on a cycle of Outlook-style assessments for thematic groups of properties and includes recommendations for climate adaptation for each property developed with and tailored to the capacity of the relevant State Party.
  • OUV remains fundamental to a property being inscribed on the WH List or being retained on that List. The Convention therefore needs a mechanism to identify WH under threat.
  • The Convention enables properties in ascertained or potential danger from climate change to be included on the List of World Heritage in Danger (IDL). However, this may not be the best way of recognising the impacts of climate change on OUV, given the large number properties likely affected and current political challenges associated with inscribing a property on the IDL.
  • We considered the advantages and disadvantages of a range of alternatives to recognise the threat of climate change, including:
    1. changes to the processes inscription on the IDL, such as thresholds for IDL Listing of various types of properties
    2. batched inscriptions of properties eligible for IDL due to climate impacts based on thematic assessments
    3. a sub-category of IDL – In Danger from Climate Change
    4. the idea of a new list of properties that are deemed vulnerable to climate change after independent expert assessment. This list, which could include both properties on the WH List and on the IDL, would not have the same legal standing as the lists established by the WH Convention, but could be a focus for fundraising for climate adaptation.
  • The loss of OUV underpins decisions about deleting a property from the WH List. The objectivity of the deletion process could be strengthened by developing explicit thresholds for different types of properties. Specific focus could then be placed on climate change as well as other circumstances where the attributes that convey the OUV of the property have been impacted to such an extent that OUV is no longer present.


  • Implementing a subset of these options could lead to positive changes in the WH system by:
    1. strengthening the role of Advisory Bodies by making the system more overtly objective
    2. increasing engagement with States Parties, Indigenous peoples and local communities in the development of realistic adaptation responses tailored to local capacity
    3. increasing networking opportunities for site managers through periodic thematic reporting based on Outlook-style processes with recommended adaptation responses
    4. reducing politicisation of decision-making in the WH system through batched IDL listing or creation of a separate list for climate vulnerable properties
    5. improving capacity to attract funds for climate adaptation.
  • Substantive reform of the Operational Guidelines would be a fitting project to commence in 2022, the 50th anniversary of the Convention. We hope these ideas will contribute to thinking about these matters, which are existential to the future of the Convention and its capacity to protect the world’s most precious heritage places in the face of climate change.

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