UK Biosphere Reserve Director explores UNESCO sites’ role as ‘Climate Change Observatories’ at COP21

Climate COP21 Conference in Paris, December 2015

A series of side-events were held at the UNESCO Pavilion during this month’s climate change conference in Paris (COP21) to explore the role of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The events sought to increase understanding of how UNESCO sites may help find solutions to and raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on human societies and cultural diversity, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

Ahead of the Climate COP21 conference, UNESCO released a special edition of its World Heritage magazine with a focus on the role of UNESCO designated sites as climate change observatories.

Download a copy of the magazine here

Andrew Bell, Vice-Chair for the UK Man and Biosphere Committee and the Director of the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was invited to present on the role of UNESCO sites in the UK and globally as hubs for monitoring climate change and as test sites for new approaches to tackling it.

Here he speaks to the UK National Commission for UNESCO on the role of Biosphere Reserves and other UNESCO sites as ‘Climate Change Observatories’.


What role did UNESCO play during the Climate COP21 Conference?

AB: A series of side events were held at the UNESCO Pavilion throughout the fortnight of the Climate COP21 conference which looked at the different areas of UNESCO’s work and how it is engaging with climate change.

UNESCO’s central message was, through its multidisciplinary mandate in education, natural and social sciences, culture and communications, it is in a unique position to address climate change holistically.

On Friday there was a marine day at COP21 so UNESCO was presenting on the work of its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Marine Heritage. On Saturday it was the UNESCO sites day, looking at the role of UNESCO’s global network of World Heritage Sites, Global Geoparks and Biosphere Reserves in climate change adaptation and mitigation.

What was your role on the UNESCO sites day at COP21?

AB: As the Vice Chairman for international projects on the UK MaB Committee, I was invited to bring along the experience of working not only in North Devon as my main day job but also the supporting work I have done in Tanzania on reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) and in Vietnam on inter-sectoral cooperation for low carbon development. The case studies explored the role that our Biosphere Reserves are playing in supporting Member States’ green growth and sustainable tourism strategies, and acting as ‘climate change observatories’ by monitoring changing conditions and devising climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions on the ground.

Why are Biosphere Reserves well placed to act as climate change observatories?

AB: The Biosphere Reserves’ strengths lie in the geographical and ecological diversity of the global network of sites and in their holistic approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation through their UNESCO-mandated remit in education and culture, as well as scientific research.

All Biosphere Reserves carry out valuable research. But they are more than research stations. They also have a social angle working with communities to adapt and mitigate the impact of environmental change. They are multi-disciplinary designations on the right kind of geographical scale to view environmental change, and knock-on effects that it can have, in a holistic sense.

Instead of viewing various environmental and social challenges within a Biosphere Reserve in silos, Biosphere Reserves can observe the interconnectedness of these challenges. Instead of perceiving fuel poverty, flooding and forestry management as three distinct issues for example, Biosphere Reserves can identify potential linkages between challenges within their research zones, as we have done in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve.

In what ways is the North Devon Biosphere Reserve engaging with climate change adaptation & mitigation?

AB: In North Devon, we have downscaled the UK Met Office regional model to forecast what the weather will be like in 40 to 60 years’ time. From this we can plan what the flooding will be like and put a plan in place to help us to adapt to this changing environment.

In response to our forecasting, we have planned new wetlands and woodlands with strategic planting in order to slow down overland flows to reduce the expected increase in flooding. By growing the forests, we knew that we also needed a plan to ensure that woodland is managed sustainably. By viewing this environmental challenge within the wider context of the Biosphere Reserve, we saw that woodland management could link well with a social challenge within the Biosphere Reserve which is fuel poverty. To help relieve residents in fuel poverty, we looking at ways to help them to switch their fuel from expensive oil-based to wood-based fuel. This supports residents in fuel poverty, it displaces oil use leading to a carbon saving and it also contends with the woodland management issue as it makes growing wood a sustainable and profitable local enterprise.

Therefore, with the local context of the North Devon Biosphere Reserve, we are engaging with climate change adaptation by offsetting flooding and also mitigating climate change impact by making carbon savings and reducing the use of fossil fuels while also supporting residents who are in fuel poverty.

What role can World Heritage Sites play in climate change?

AB: World Heritage Sites have a role to play in looking into how to preserve the culture of migrating communities that are being displaced by climate change impact as well as how to protect sites that are under threat as a result of climate change impact.

Our work in Vietnam was to explore what might be suitable in a World Heritage City inside a Biosphere Reserve that is prone to regular flooding. We identified how some of the flooding issues can be reduced by sustainable urban drainage and how the energy contribution can be handled through development like roof top solar power on buildings outside the World Heritage Site’s core area.

What, for you, was the main outcome from the COP21 conference?

AB: The discussions were a great opportunity to raise awareness of the global network of readymade climate change observatories and highlight that the whole UN should be recognising these UNESCO sites as assets in the fight against climate change.