With so much negative news around environmental issues, a report stating that things are improving, or at least not deteriorating, is a welcome relief. For COP23, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2 report may be that little bit of hope.

The first assessment of IUCN World Heritage sites since 2014 shows that every Asian site has either improved, or been stable.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature advises the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on natural issues. There are 206 natural and 35 mixed areas (with some built up structures) in 107 countries on the list. With a total area of 293,620,965 hectares (2.93 million square kilometres), this is equivalent to almost two-thirds the land area of India. Since 2015, 13 new sites have been added to the list. From South Asia, the Khangchendzonga National Park in India was the only one added.

In the World Heritage Outlook, first published in 2014, these sites were listed in four categories: good, good with some concerns, significant concerns, and critical. There has been little significant change in overall numbers. In 2017, only 43 sites were assessed as good compared to 47 in 2014, despite new sites being added. On the other hand, only 17 were classified as critical compared to 19 in 2014. Overall, this leaves us where we were three years ago, but it is in the details that more intriguing data emerges.

Of the 241 sites, 14 improved and 12 declined in status. The IUCN assesses the status using three measures: values, threats, and protection and management capabilities. While the last two are self-explanatory, value refers to the outstanding nature of the site – its beauty and uniqueness – which can be degraded by natural or human actions.

The largest decline in status seems to have happened in Europe, with seven sites showing a decline. In Asia, no site showed a decline, and in Indiaboth the Kaziranga National Park and the Sundarbans National Park were upgraded from “significant concern” to “good with some concerns”. (The Bangladeshi part of the Sundarbans remains in the “significant concern” category). Africa, too, saw a general uptick in the overall situation of its sites.

It is striking that it is not the richest areas that have improved their ranking, although North America remains the region with the highest number of sites (90%) in the “good” or “good with some concerns” category.

While there is good news, a significant issue is the rise of the impact of climate change. The number of sites affected, or threatened, by climate change impacts has almost doubled – from 35 sites in 2014 to 62 sites today. In 2014, climate change was considered the most significant potential threat, which has come true. No other issue, neither invasive species or the impact of tourism, both of which rank in the top three global threats to World Heritage sites, has increased to such a degree.

Trends become more apparent at the regional level. Climate change impacts, for now, are affecting sites in the regions of South America, Central America and the Caribbean the most. For Asia, the most important concern is the impact of human intervention, such as tourism, hunting, roads and railway and dam construction. Climate change comes after this, on par with water pollution.

Although climate change impacts are still a significant threat, the IUCN assesses that direct human intervention is likely to do greater harm than indirect  – through human caused climate change impacts. In developing countries, weakening environmental controls to make profits is an important issue to watch out for.

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