Why sustainably managing the UNESCO World Heritage Sites is required to enforce global conservation and prevent risks to societies and economies
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Sustainability is more than tackling climate change or deploying renewable energy. While dealing with the climate crisis is one defining challenge of the century, stopping biodiversity loss and the decline of natural ecosystem services is another. Climate change adaptation and mitigation can only be successful if we simultaneously manage to protect the natural environment and the services it provides to our societies and economies. We need to find ways that biodiversity can cope with climate change, but also reduce the negative impacts that land use changes, exploitation, pollution and invasive species have on biodiversity. It is not possible to solve climate change without biodiversity, nor the other way around. If we lose the natural environment as the foundation for life, evolution, food, shelter, medical supply, cultural and religious inspiration, what is left to protect from climate change?
Natural World Heritage Sites (WHS) are a good place to foster protection. They perform many ecological services, including providing food and water, stabilizing soils, preserving fisheries, preventing floods and capturing carbon – and they are significant reservoirs of biodiversity. Some of the world’s most endangered plants and animals are only found in WHS. Currently, there are more than 1000 places listed as WHS - and many of them face a diverse range of harming impacts. In particular, extractive activities like mining, power plants, dams, housing development, deforestation or intensive agriculture can be damaging. In our recent Swiss Re Institute publication "Conserving our common heritage", that we published together with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), we point out that spatial analysis helps to achieve a clearer overview of economic activities in these areas to ultimately stop the decline of natural ecosystem services and biodiversity. Also, Swiss Re does not provide business support to activities that contribute to the conversion or degradation of ecologically sensitive areas, and respects specifically protected areas including WHS.
The OECD has indicated that biodiversity decline leads to ecological, regulatory, market, reputational, and financial risks: Resource dependency, quality, and scarcity can trigger business continuity risks. Also governments may intervene and pose restrictions on land or sea access or use, publish procurement standards, new disclosure requirements, moratoriums or new licensing and permitting procedures. As consumer preferences may shift towards products with reduced biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES) impacts, market and reputational risks evolve. Furthermore, as financial actors become increasingly aware, lending requirements may become more stringent based on BES impacts, loss of investments opportunities may occur when investors integrate BES into their decisions, and assets in agriculture might depreciate. All of these matter to the insurance industry.
Measuring and managing our socio-economic footprint in World Heritage Sites helps us to learn from our experience and apply this to areas outside WHS. Because the pressure on biodiversity and natural ecosystems services is a global, multifaceted phenomenon, we cannot restrict a transformational change to heritage sites, but ultimately need to extend it to our global natural environment.