UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the planet’s most iconic places and include sites from the natural and built world. But a new report from the group shows that a small but vital number of forests that have received a UNESCO designation are being irrevocably altered by human activities.
The degradation means that they’ve turned from carbon sinks into carbon sources, throwing the planet’s climate budget out of balance. The report, released on Thursday ahead of major United Nations climate talks that begin next week in Glasgow, highlights the role forests play in protecting the climate. The 257 UNESCO World Heritage Sites contain 170 million acres of forest cover, an area the report notes is twice the size of Germany.
Together, these areas pull 190 million tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year, which helps mitigate the excess carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels. But the report is a warning; just because the natural world is doing us a huge favor doesn’t mean it will continue to do so.
While 166 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are still storing away carbon and another 81 are basically neutral locations that neither emit nor store carbon, the report shows 10 sites have turned into emitters over the past decade. The reason? Humans are messing them up, whether because climate change is contributing to more intense fires or deforestation is weakening ecosystems. Take a tour of the world’s most stunning and imperiled forests.