COP28 Took Steps Toward Safeguarding Cultural Heritage from Climate Change

January 3, 2024 | 4:02 pm
Adam Markham
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The outcomes of the latest international climate negotiations at COP28 in Dubai in December, while taking some important steps forward, fell far short of what is needed to avert climate catastrophe. Despite formally recognizing for the first time that a transition from fossil fuel use is necessary, nations failed to agree to the fast, fair, and funded phase-out that scientists are calling for. One big positive from COP28 was the creation of a Loss and Damage fund to address climate impacts in the Global South. However, most developed nations including the U.S. made only minimal, almost derisory, financial commitments to it. And one of the few other glimmers of hope that emerged from COP28 was the increasing recognition of the importance of cultural heritage and cultural rights in climate action and responses. There are three ways in which this issue advanced substantially at the meeting. 

1. The recognition of cultural heritage as one of seven thematic targets in the new Framework for the Global Goal on Adaption. 

One of the major agreements at COP28 was on a new framework for achieving the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), which for the first time identified cultural heritage as a core theme. The GGA urges nations to protect “cultural heritage from the impacts of climate-related risks by developing adaptive strategies for preserving cultural practices and heritage sites and by designing climate-resilient infrastructure, guided by traditional knowledge, Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and local knowledge systems”. This recognition not just of the vital importance of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, but also of Indigenous and traditional knowledge, represents a major step forward achieved at COP28. Unfortunately, however, as was pointed out by several delegates from the Global South, the framework decision on the GGA fell far short in providing the finance needed for adaptation in vulnerable countries. 

2. The launch of the Group of Friends of Culture Based Climate Action 

COP 28 saw the convening of the first ever multilateral High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Culture-based Climate Action chaired by Brazil and the UAE. The convening, which was supported by the Climate Heritage Network (of which UCS is a founding member), resulted in the adoption of the Emirates Declaration on Culture-based Climate Action, supported by more than 20 countries, including Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Mali, Pakistan, Senegal, Spain and Uganda. The group specifically referenced the inclusion of heritage impacts in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report and the International Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change co-sponsored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and UNESCO, held in December 2021. UCS’s Director of Climate Science, Brenda Ekwurzel, was a contributing expert at that meeting, and its final report emphasized the importance of addressing cultural heritage impacts and adaptation in future IPCC reports, and of giving full weight to Indigenous and traditional knowledge. 

The Emirates Declaration recognizes “the devastating impacts of climate change already being felt today by people across the globe, the threat to tangible and intangible heritage risks leading to significant disruption of inter-generational transmission of socio-cultural practices, infringement on cultural rights of peoples and communities, and limitation of cultural diversity, thereby depriving us of precious sources of resilience, meaning, identity, knowledge, livelihoods, and economic benefits”.  

Photo: Climate Heritage Network

At the core of the Emirates Declaration is a commitment to “Scaling-up culture and heritage-based strategies for enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience, avoiding maladaptation, and reducing vulnerability to climate change impacts”. The Group of Friends announced their intention to meet again at COP29, and prior to that explore the potential for a COP29 decision to launch a joint work program on culture and climate action to be addressed at COP30 in Brazil.  

3. A loss and damage fund which addresses cultural heritage 

The new Loss and Damage Fund (to be at least temporarily hosted by the World Bank) will provide financial support to developing countries for recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation, as well as funding to address ongoing impacts such as sea level rise, aridification and biodiversity loss. Crucially, the loss and damage fund will include support not just for climate impacts that can be assigned a monetary value, but also for non-economic losses, including most types of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Current pledges to the fund stand at nearly $800 million, but it is estimated that $400 billion or more will be required annually by 2030. The US has pledged just $17.5 million

Photo: Climate Heritage Network

Where do we go from here?  

As preparations begin for COP29 in Azerbaijan and a new IPCC assessment cycle starts, there are some clear priorities for advancing action on climate and heritage. For example, there will be opportunities to provide input on what measures could be implemented by national governments, including the US, under the newly agreed Global Goal on Adaptation cultural heritage theme. Meanwhile, UCS will also work to increase the number of countries that support the goal of the Emirates Declaration to initiate a new work program in cultural heritage and climate action at COP29, and to outline what such a work program should include. At the IPCC UCS will advocate for increased recognition of Indigenous and traditional knowledge, and the inclusion of more Indigenous and Global South scientists. 

Furthermore, to make the Loss and Damage Fund truly effective for addressing irreversible climate impacts on cultural heritage, it will be necessary to develop methodologies for monitoring and assessing non-economic loss and damage (NELD) – especially of intangible heritage such as cultural practices, languages, Indigenous and traditional knowledge, ecosystem services and culturally important species of plants and animals. Much cultural heritage cannot – or in the view of many people, should not – be assigned a monetary value, so there is an urgent need to explore and develop new options for reparations and ways of providing cultural redress. One example of how this might be achieved lies in New Zealand’s Waitangi Tribunal process, which in addition to financial payments, has used land sovereignty grants, place name changes and joint resource management agreements to resolve Indigenous compensation claims dating to the colonial era. Non-economic loss and damage is context-specific, and it’s vital that impacted communities be fully involved in identifying and assessing losses, and in determining what remedies can be applied. UCS is committed to helping to find and support innovative compensation mechanisms for cultural loss and damage.