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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be in final negotiations to play Doctor Strange for Marvel although the casting has not yet been confirmed
film
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Life and Style
fashion

World Beard and Moustache Championships held last week

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Copycat culture: the Chateau Zhang Laffitte in China, top, and the building which inspired it, in Paris, bottom
architectureReplicas of Western landmarks are springing up in unlikely places
Sport
Rolando Aarons watches as his effort finds the corner of the Manchester City goal to give Newcastle the lead
footballManchester City 0 Newcastle 2: Holders crash out on home turf
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Secondary Humanities, Business and Economics, Jan 15, Malaysia

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Secondary Humanities, Business...

Key stage 1 supply bank

£80 - £110 per day + CPD: Randstad Education Bristol: Key stage 1 & 2 supp...

Secondary Chemistry Teacher, January 2015, Malaysia

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Secondary Chemistry TeacherReq...

ICT/Computing Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: ICT/Computing Teache...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain