West's emissions 'fuelling destruction of Heritage Sites'

A A A

The United Nations is facing pressure from scientists and campaigners to acknowledge the potentially devastating effect of climate change on the world's most precious ecological sites.

Environmental activists, who are concerned that poorer countries with low greenhouse gas emissions are being saddled with the damage wreaked by richer countries' soaring emission levels, are pressing the UN World Heritage Sites Committee to admit that five of its most important sites are being damaged, perhaps irrevocably, by climate change. The barrier reefs of Belize and Australia and glacier parks in Nepal, Peru and the Rockies are supposed to be among the best-protected areas in the world, but are already showing clear signs of the effects of global warming.

The World Heritage Sites Committee, which stipulates that listed sites should not be damaged by its signatories, is preparing to hear a petition brought by scientists, which, if successful could lead to poor countries attempting to sue richer neighbours for emitting greenhouse gases.

Scientists in Belize working on the barrier reef there believe their case is particularly strong. They say the reef, which runs for almost 200 miles along the coast of central America, has suffered more than 40 per cent damage due to bleaching since 1998, and that much of it is now so badly fractured that another hurricane this season would simply sweep it away.

Coral bleaching brought on by high temperatures in the western Caribbean has left the whitened reef vulnerable to over-fishing, pollution, hungry sea creatures and snorklers, as well as the storm waves that accompany hurricanes. Local fishermen say there was no evidence of bleaching before 1998. Billy Leslie of the Hustler Dive School in San Pedro in northern Belize said: "My father was a commercial fisherman. He tells me that we have never heard of coral bleaching like this. It's a horrible sight to see the coral just gets whiter and whiter every day."

Richard Foster, a wildlife cameraman, says: "I first started diving here in the early Eighties and you just won't believe the difference of today. The corals were so thick they were competing with each other on the bottom. There was no space between the corals. Now you've got these open spaces with grey dying coral and the occasional live one in between. It's very sad to see."

Dr Melanie McField, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, has been studying the reefs for15 years and is confident that climate change is a key factor. "On an annual basis the sea temperatures in the Caribbean haven't changed much," she said, "but we are now registering prolonged periods of severe heating that we didn't see before. When the water temperature is elevated we get a bleaching alert. The other big sign that the water temperatures are to blame rather than local pollution is that the bleaching episodes happen all over the Caribbean at the same time."

Dr McField expressed anger that Belize has been working hard to protect its reefs but is suffering from a problem beyond its control. This, she said, is an example of a small country with low greenhouse gas emissions bearing the brunt of damage they did not cause.

She is also concerned about another major threat to the future of the corals - ocean acidification. The Royal Society argued last year that so much CO2 from fossil-fuel burning was being absorbed into the oceans that surface waters were becoming dangerously acidic. Research shows that many species of coral are easily damaged by even a slight lowering of pH levels.

A small minority of coral researchers believes that fears over climate change and acidification have been exaggerated. They argue that over time the reefs will adapt to warmer waters and that calcium littering the ocean floors will buffer the effects of acidification.

Dr McField said she accepted that reefs might eventually adapt but that this could take thousands of years. In the meantime, she warned, poor countries making money from the reefs would suffer huge economic damage. In Belize the reef is a major tourist business - nearly half of the country's 260,000 visitors come to see it - and also the mainstay of the economically vital fishing industry.

Miguel Alamilla, who runs a marine protected area off the town of San Pedro, said the short-sighted environment policies of bigger industrial countries was harming those in the developing world. "They need to open up and not be egotistical. They need to think globally," he said. "Be aware that people are dependent on the coral reef and their livelihoods depend on that. If it is destroyed what will happen to them?"

The UN campaigners believe these are powerful arguments in their favour. But they will face determined resistance from the US when the committee meets between 8 and 16 July. Washington argues that there is no conclusive proof that the Belize coral reef is being damaged by greenhouse gases, and that any damage to the reef is accidental and therefore not in breach of the World Heritage Sites treaty.

Roger Harrabin, who is the BBC's environment analyst, reports from Belize on BBC TV News this evening.

Environments under threat

Belize Barrier Reef

Described by Charles Darwin as the "most remarkable reef in the West Indies", half of Belize's annual 260,000 tourists visit the World Heritage Site. It is a victim of severe coral bleaching.

Great Barrier Reef

Australia's most famous reef is home to one of the most intensely populated ecosystems. It isprotected by World Heritage status but is highly sensitive to climate change.

Sagamartha National Park

Surrounded by mountains, Nepal's Sagamartha (literally, Mother of the Universe) is home to the glaciers that feed into the Ganges river system. As climate change melts its glaciers, the park and the millions in India and Bangladesh who rely on Himalayan rivers are at risk.

Husascaran National Park

The Cordillera Blanca mountain range and Peru's Husascaran National Park make up the world's highest tropical mountain range and are a vital asset to Peru both financially and scientifically. The park's plunging ravines are fed by a host of glacial lakes, which are highly susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Waterton-Glacier Park

The national park, which straddles the US and Canada and was the first region in the world to be declared an International Peace Park, has already lost 80 per cent of its glaciers because of rising summer temperatures.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star