Cape Town - If you still had your doubts about climate change, thinking it won't affect your daily life in South Africa, you need to wake up.
Not only is climate change real, it is also fast becoming one of the most significant risks for World Heritage sites, according to the World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate report released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The report lists 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are vulnerable to increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons.
South Africa's Cape Floral Region, smallest of the six recognised floral kingdoms of the world and one of the reasons why SA is considered one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, is under threat.
"Climate change has already been recorded in the Western Cape region," the report states, "with studies suggesting an average warming of 0.1–0.2ºC per decade from 1901 to 2006 in the Greater Cape Floristic Region."
For the future, the regional warming trend is expected to continue and the fynbos will get hotter and drier, with an especially marked decrease in winter rainfall. There is also evidence that the incidence of very large fires have increased since the 1990s, and the total average area burned annually has expanded significantly since the 1980s.
Capetonians know this well, having seen two consecutive years of massive wildfires across the Cape peninsula and winelands, and these are just in protected areas.
"Outside protected areas, the fynbos is already under severe pressure, with approximately 31% already lost, particularly as a result of the conversion of wildlands to agriculture, urban development and plantation forestry," the report states.
Because UNESCO World Heritage sites must have and maintain “Outstanding Universal Value,” the report recommends that the World Heritage Committee consider degrading the sites affected by climate change as to keep the list of sites credible.
Other iconic tourism sites—including Venice, Stonehenge and the Galápagos Islands— along with other World Heritage sites are threatened with being downgraded from UNESCO's World Heritage Sites list because of climate change.
Some Easter Island statues are also at risk of being lost to the sea because of coastal erosion, while many of the world’s most important coral reefs, including in the islands of New Caledonia in the western Pacific, have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching linked to climate change this year.
In Australia's Great Barrier Reef for example, underwater heating has led to devastating coral bleaching which has damaged 95% of the northern reefs.
#ShockWildlifeTruths: One third of Great Barrier Reef coral killed by bleaching
In Thailand too, many diving sites have been closed to visitors due to the same problem. Four islands, each with many tourist diving sites on coral reefs, were closed by Thai marine officials over the past month after 'damage to 80% of reefs' in the area.
SEE: 3 More Thai Islands closed to tourists following 'damage to 80% of coral reefs'
Recognition on the UNESCO World Heritage Site's list means much more than just being listed as a place of special cultural or physical significance.
Once a country signs the UNESCO Convention, and has sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, the resulting prestige often helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation. Greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties. A country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites.
Climate change can lead to some World Heritage sites to losing their status, and subsequently the advantages that come with it.
Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre says, "achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2ºC is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”
“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites."
According to Elisa Tonda, for the UNEP, "Policies to decouple tourism from natural resource impacts, carbon emissions and environmental harm will be needed if tourism is to realise its potential to provide sustainable livelihoods in some of the world's most visited places."
South Africa recently signed the Paris Climate Change Agreement, agreeing to adhere to international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to meet all the associated challenges posed by climate change.
READ MORE ABOUT THE PARIS AGREEMENT HERE: #FutureIsClean: SA's plans to reduce global warming
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