COP27: a success for culture and heritage

COP27: a success for culture and heritage

The end of COP27 led to mixed results, the event being ruled by many observers as falling short of crucial expectations put upon the convened representatives for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas in areas like culture, substantial improvements happened with the first recognition of a strong relationship between climate change and cultural heritage. Heritage was indeed included by the parties to the UN Climate Convention as a theme that will structure the further discussions leading to the future adoption of a Global Goal on Adaptation.
From 6 to 18 November 2022, the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro) was held in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt). Bringing together some 200 delegations and representatives from countries involved in the UNFCCC (signed in 1994), the COP27 was, as its title indicates, the 27th of a series that initially started in Berlin in 1995, when the principle of international joint climate action was first formalized.

Credits: George Desipris (Pexels)

This year’s COP concentrated particular attention due to the challenge of the worldwide implementation of the Paris Agreement (December 2015) objectives, that have been so far effectively translated into ambitious reduction measures only by a limited share of the 2015 accord’s signatories. More precisely, before the COP only 29 out of 194 nations had submitted strengthened climate plans to the UN, as per the agreement from last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. A situation regarded as “disappointing” and far from being up to the “gravity of the threats we are facing”, according to Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change.
Climate change puts pressure not only on livelihoods, but also on the cultural realities associated, and the heritage therein. International mobilization around the protection of cultural heritage threatened by natural disasters started as early as the late 1950s, when Egypt requested international help to save Nubian monuments that were threatened by rising Nile waters after the construction of the Aswan Dam. In the late 1960s, freak floods in Venice, Italy (1966), and the Indonesian call for assistance to stop the degradation of the Borobudur Temple, fed international groundswells of support and a strengthened worldwide awareness for the need to create international legal instruments corresponding to the new natural challenges.
Adverse climate change effects are well perceptible throughout the world in the recent years. Major climate events are becoming more frequent, with extreme cold and heat waves, hurricanes, floods and many other catastrophic scenarios that confirm the findings of the periodic reports published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warn of the greater likelihood of such occurrences in the next decades. The latest extreme floods, cold and heat waves affecting Asia, Europe and America are among the costliest and most serious in history. Urban and rural areas are experiencing events that threaten, damage and sometimes destroy not only common built infrastructures, but also heritage sites, monuments and artefacts of unique historical and cultural value.
This being so, with concerns for heritage resilience becoming more and more present, how did the COP27 fulfill at least some of its promises of moving forward the global climate action? What did the event bring with regard to heritage conservation and protection? What to expect for the upcoming steps of the COP process in terms of culture-based approaches to climate action? Has this year’s COP led to advances for threatened heritage around the world? Throughout the following lines CHARTER reviews the question and discusses in more depth the magnitude of the issues of climate resilience, and of the mitigation of climate change effects, in cultural heritage conservation and protection.

Climate resilience: a rising issue for the heritage field

The resilience of cultural heritage in the face of environmental hazards has become a subject of growing public attention from the late 1960s, when negotiations were launched within the UNESCO framework for an international convention aimed at reasserting the importance of conscientiously protecting threatened heritage against potentially damaging natural risks that already clearly materialize around the globe, and that are expected to increasingly do so. The current situation’s urgency is verified by several extreme weather events that make humanity grasp, each year, the practical reality of climate change and its abundance of manifestations in the extreme weather events. This reality is already reshaping life in the most afflicted societies (loss of livelihood, massive exodus), bringing to light concerns about the very possibility to maintain life as usual and population settlements in some of the most affected areas, following devastating events.

As a corollary of the existential climate challenge stems the issue of the protection of threatened cultural heritage in areas of high climate risk. Effects of climate change are likely to materialize in the upcoming decades on the full heritage spectrum covering both tangible (human constructions and productions) and intangible (knowledge, practices and traditions) cultural heritage. As regards tangible heritage, extreme weather is known to cause unusual strain on constructions and to create particularly endangering situations for heritage sites, calling for specific actions to protect buildings, monuments and places of cultural significance, in the context of an aggravation of physical stress on both outdoor and indoor heritage goods. Indeed, sharp temperature changes, abrupt variations in humidity conditions and in the broader climate cycles, also lead to rising constraints for cultural heritage professionals exerting indoors: these variations unavoidably impact the conservation of artworks, paper archives and other heritage artefacts that require specific environmental conditions to ensure their durability.

As for the intangible heritage implications of climate change, if some sweeping climate-induced events will necessarily bring upheavals in communities’ living environments, expectable dire consequences on the side of local crafts, know-how, oral and musical traditions, as well as on other forms of intangible cultural expressions, can already be seriously envisioned and hypothesized. As an example, the loss or degradation of living environments due to natural disasters inevitably disrupts and weaken the durability of practices and lifestyles stemming from specific ecological contexts.

A subject of international mobilization

The last decades saw widened awareness over the climate change issue, in all parts of the world, as larger areas of the globe are having to cope with extreme weather events year after year. For what concerns heritage, the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO, set the groundwork for many aspects of the current international cultural heritage protection framework, and notably the World Heritage List, as well as the associated Committee entitled for admitting new sites in the renowned list. Of particular significance, in today’s climate crisis, is the centrality it gives both to cultural and natural sites as equivalently legitimate elements of heritage with potentially outstanding universal value, deemed as equally deserving efforts on the sides of education, recognition, protection and valorization.

The spread of the notion of sustainable development, theorized in Gro Harlem Brundtlandt’s 1987 report, along with the rising account taken of the compelling necessity to undertake heritage conservation and protection together with sustainability efforts, gradually made a lasting impression on the international normative framework for the protection of cultural heritage. Since the early 2000s, initiatives on the subject continuously reassert the unavoidable conciliation between heritage and sustainability, like the recognition in the 2001 UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, of cultural diversity, to which heritage is intrinsically related, as “the key to sustainable human development” (Article 11). The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage emphasizes in its preamble “the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development”.

Credits: Pavan Singh (Pexels)

The importance of culture and heritage for sustainability is even more clearly expressed in recently adopted positions, perhaps due to the sense of urgency that starts to set in. In 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (65/166) recognizing in its preamble culture as “an essential component of human development” and “an important contributor to the sustainable development of local communities, peoples and nations”. As some, like the Executive Bureau of United Cities and Local Governments in a 2010 Policy Statement, have been calling for culture to be formally recognized as a fourth pillar of sustainable development (alongside the social, economic and environmental), the concept has been put at the very core of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) fixed by the UN in its Agenda 2030 launched in 2015.

The 4th SDG’s target 4.7 recognizes explicitly “culture’s contribution to sustainable development”, which paved the way for direct implications within heritage protection, through the adoption by the 2015 General Assembly of States Parties to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, of a “Policy Document for the Integration of a Sustainable Development Perspective into the Processes of the World Heritage Convention”, which states that “the need has become apparent to view conservation objectives […] within a broader range of economic, social and environmental values and needs encompassed in the sustainable development concept” (article 2).

The European Union also built over the years its own elaborate framework of action that started developing as early as 1979 with the adoption of a set of rules for the transborder protection of wild birds. A qualitative boost was given to the EU’s environmental policies with the adoption in 2020 of a “European Green Deal”, that engages environmental turns in the Union’s major areas of action, in support of very ambitious climate objectives that were revised upwards from 2019, and translated into European law in 2021 with legally binding measures for all Member States. The bloc’s forward-looking approach is intended to ensuring the achievement of its goal of more than halving (-55%) the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with the aim of making carbon neutrality a reality for the whole of Europe by 2050.

The translation to Europe’s cultural sector is ongoing, with normative and knowledge challenges standing out. As part of the bloc’s multiannual Work Plan for Culture defined by Member States for the period 2019-2022, a panel of experts was mandated to examine the extent to which heritage can contribute to the pursuit of the European Green Deal’s goals. The panel’s findings are contained in a recently published report (September 2022), that calls for intensified efforts and stresses the “lack of awareness and lack of action in EU Member States and at the EU level”, with 9 out of 27 countries having no legal framework covering heritage issues resulting from climate change, and only 7 having coordinated measures to make climate action and heritage protection function as a coherent whole. Experts also describe as “a major source of concern” the fact “consequences of concurrent catastrophic events for the whole cultural heritage sector have not yet been adequately dealt with or investigated”, highlighting the pressing need for studies and extensive research.

A mixed-results Conference: progress for culture, stalling for harmful emissions

A few days after its closure, what can be said about COP27’s contribution to the advancement of a fairer recognition of culture and heritage as drivers of climate resilience? Although officially acknowledged at the level of specialized agencies and organizations dealing with the issue on a daily basis, the full recognition of the role of culture and heritage in the fight against climate change was not self-evident a few years ago at the global level. Efforts to raise the international decision-makers’ awareness of the issue were long hampered by the lack of recognition culture and heritage have suffered in the potential they have to bolster climate action. In the COP process, the importance of heritage in climate action was not recognized in official parties statements up until this year’s gathering in Egypt.

Credits: Nothing Ahead (Pexels)

Indeed, the labelling of culture and heritage as main subjects of concern and interest in the written results of COP27, can be said to stand as a landmark with regard to the place given to cultural matters in these final documents, compared to what was the case in the previous conferences. Such a recognition opens up perspectives for enhanced protective intervention on threatened groups, sites and artefacts, at the local, national and international levels. It shows mentalities and stances are evolving on the matter. COP27 saw progress on the roadmap for the future adoption of the Global Goal on Adaptation (prescribed by the Paris Agreement and serving as the Parties’ basis for the implementation of their adaptation efforts). The adopted work programme contains, after intense negotiation, a clear and explicit reference to cultural heritage as an avenue for climate action, although only in its tangible variant. This inclusion means the theme will structure the delegations’ further work on the subject, and thus the future Global Goal on Adaptation, expected to be discussed deeper at COP28, in the United Arab Emirates.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, the meeting’s key synthetical decision paper, notes “with grave concern” that “the adverse effects of climate change” are increasingly leading to “devastating economic and non-economic losses, including forced displacement and impacts on cultural heritage” (article 44). This mention comes as a Loss and Damage Fund has been agreed upon, after several decades of unsuccessful attempts on the subject, as a solution ultimately intended to compensate and indemnify the losses and damage incurred by the most exposed countries due to the effects of climate change some of them have already started to experience. Many of these countries being still developing, the Fund is seen as a way to restore a form of historical fairness between the biggest beneficiaries of the climate-costly development of the previous two centuries, and those that long remained on its margins, while “paying” nowadays some of its harshest environmental backlashes.

Moreover, COP27’s Urban and Housing Ministerial Session on Cities and Climate Change was the occasion for the event’s presidency to launch a new initiative called “Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe)”, supported by 100+ partners worldwide, and targeting urban sustainability and the development of climate-neutral capacities and resources in cities. In its launch documentation, the initiative builds on the fact “that culture and heritage represent both an asset to be protected from climate impacts and a resource to strengthen the ability of communities to pursue transformative change”. However, apart from these encouraging signs rendered possible in part because of the active coverage and mobilization of the event by renowned artists and engaged figures and professionals, the COP27 did not manage to strike an agreement between its parties for a pressing drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, a topic that was a main subject of concern for many who were finally left with a bad aftertaste of the conference’s broad results, like the European Union whose leadership expressed overt disappointment over the outcomes, and the United Nations, whose Secretary General admitted his discontent with the gas emissions status quo. Negotiations on the reduction of emissions did not go as hoped, with “major fault lines” appearing and some agenda elements “mired in disagreements”, as estimated by Andrew Freedman from Axios.

A tribute to engaged actors

Still, the advances for cultural heritage in Sharm El-Sheikh show the clear consciousness that the current far-reaching changes our planet is going through are clearly multidimensional in nature. They show that at the highest level of relations between nations, heritage – albeit only tangible – is regarded as a subject that counts, and that will guide the negotiations for collective resolution of a, if not the, major crisis of our times. The results now standing in written form in the COP27 end documents remain clear achievements, overall. They represent a lot for the heritage field, that made formally its entry in the COP policymaking process through its official recognition as a tool for climate adaptation.

Credits: Cup of Couple (Pexels)

Furthermore, despite the absence of intangible heritage stricto sensu in the COP27’s final documents, the Global Goal on Adaptation work programme does include in its transversal category of “cross-cutting considerations” guiding the framework for upcoming GGA talks, “traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, ecosystem-based adaptation, nature-based solutions, community-based adaptation”, all elements that may have to do at some point with intangible heritage. What surely can be underlined is that the final state of fact actually owes much to the activism and engagement of united stakeholders that started early their mobilization and preparation work for action during the COP. And given the results, one can say they succeeded. An example of such actor is the Climate Heritage Network (CHN), a non-governmental organization whose headquarters are hosted within the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) premises in Paris suburbs (France). Established in 2018 during the Global Climate Summit in San Francisco (USA), the network fastly gathered dozens of high-profile partners eager to demonstrate their ability to do their best to conjugate sustainability with heritage conservation and protection. As per its own description, CHN “works to re-orient climate policy, planning, and action at all levels to account for dimensions of culture – from arts to heritage”. CHN works on issues ranging from adaptation, resilience, to women and gender inclusiveness.

On 28 October 2022, like it did prior to last year’s COP, CHN released a pre-COP Manifesto calling practitioner in arts, culture, heritage and beyond, to act for change and engage into concrete climate action in view of the forthcoming international gathering. After the 2021 Manifesto entitled “A Manifesto on Keeping 1.5° Alive” that was released before COP26 in Glasgow, this year’s edition, under the title “Imagining and Realising Climate Resilient Futures: The Power of Arts, Culture and Heritage to Accelerate Climate Action”, brought forward the potentialities that the broad cultural area and its related practitioners have at their disposal to pull their weight in the societies’ adaptation and resilience endeavours to face adverse climate effects.

By carrying the word for a group of over 200 private, public and associative organizations, CHN exerts its outreach through the field access it enjoys from the COP observer status ICOMOS, one of its members, is entitled with. This gave the network the possibility to organize, during COP27, a full day event called “Art Culture Heritage COP27”, held on 11 November 2022, during which full attention was devoted to emboldening an approach according to which “current climate planning [needs] to help people imagine practical, desirable low carbon, just, climate resilient futures” through the development of reinforcing and supportive imageries and mindsets. The day found resonance among many of the attendees and was notably supported by the American Research Centre in Egypt, CultureCOP, Julie’s Bicycle and USAID. Very active on social media and reporting regularly on the latest developments falling within its scope, CHN works year round to be ready to get its message across to the concerned COP actors, so that the heritage sustainability cause forges ahead in the upcoming challenges awaiting climate action in the COP process. With promising results, as it organized in December 2021 , jointly with the ICOMOS and IPCC, a co-sponsored meeting intended at advancing heritage and culture-based actions for climate change adaptation and carbon mitigation. The very rich outputs this event generated – 4 books between 69 and 109 pages, dealing in detailed manner with the issues covered including the agenda for global research and action, or heritage risk management – is demonstrative of CHN’s ability not only to mobilize, but also to feed the field’s reflection with innovative knowledge stemming from unprecedented – and necessary – cross-sector collaborations.

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