Coping with Environmental Challenges, Climate and Biodiversity Action in UNESCO Sites

UNESCO’s side event at the High-Level Political Forum 2021 showcased solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation, using on concrete examples from from UNESCO’s unique global network of designated sites, which are important models for building resilience to climate change and reconciling people and nature. The event on 6 July 2021 was opened and moderated by Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences. She shared a message from Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the relevant activities of more than 2,000 UNESCO designated sites to promote sustainable solutions. The UNESCO global network of sites covers 6% of the Earth’s landmass and comprises 1,121 World Heritage Sites, 714 Biosphere Reserves and 169 UNESCO Global Geoparks distributed all over the world.

The side event began with a discussion on how to address climate change and biodiversity on land and in the Ocean from a scientific perspective, followed by a ministerial-level dialogue with government representatives on climate action and global policies with a focus on the G20 and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Youth representatives then took the floor to share their experience as actors of positive change on the ground. Further details and presentations from each session are shared below.


Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner and Dr. David Obura presented the outcomes of the first co-sponsored workshop of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), highlighting the interactions between the climate and the biodiversity crises. He commented that “Climate change and biodiversity loss are threating human wellbeing and society: they are closely interconnected and share common anthropogenic drivers.

Conservation efforts have not been sufficient to inhibit the loss of biodiversity: the surface currently subjected to ambitious conservation is too small to stem the loss of biodiversity on a global scale.  An immediate conclusion is that maintaining biodiversity and its functioning relies on phasing out emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand, a thriving biodiversity will facilitate climate change adaptation for people and ecosystems.

Dr. Obura stressed that conservation, climate and societal action must be integrated, taking into consideration that people’s interaction with nature varies greatly. These three areas of action act as coupled systems and understanding how to improve the whole system is key to successful action. Nature-based solutions have their limits and must be supported by a transformation of regulatory systems and governance systems to make positive outcomes possible. Three essential components are ambitious emissions reductions from fossil fuels, restoring a resilient biosphere and biodiversity, and addressing justice and equality in eradicating poverty.

Dr. Paula Cristina Sierra-Correa gave an overview of the ecosystem services provided by the ocean, and the role of marine and coastal ecosystems in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. She presented opportunities the restoration of vulnerable marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass can provide to offset some of the worst-case scenarios discussed in the global risk report. Recent studies by Dr. Sierra-Correa and colleagues on seagrass blue carbon stock in the Caribbean underlined the urgent need to extend marine protected areas to 30% by 2030 in order to cope with climate change.


Representatives from Belize, Costa Rica, Italy and the Maldives shared insights drawing from their countries’ situation an experience, successes and future plans.

The Maldives, “a coral reef dependent nation” according to Dr. Abdulla Naseer, State Minister of the Maldives, is particularly vulnerable to climate change and biodiversity loss. The country’s economy is directly dependent on healthy coral reefs, with loss of corals leading to a spiralizing chain of adverse effects that eventually have a direct impact on the local population. Dr. Naseer presented an ambitious national plan to decrease the human impact on reef ecosystems by increasing marine protected areas, which currently cover 10% of their coral reef area. He explained that the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve, which became a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2011, has provided a conservation case study of the benefits of conservation to share with island communities and has led to the establishment of other two UNESCO biosphere reserves in the country. He also emphasized the need for global high-level political commitment to consolidate individual national plans into action to reverse the trends on biodiversity loss and climate change.

Costa Rica hosts more that 5% of the world’s biodiversity in its relatively small territory. Fifty percent of the territory is covered by natural ecosystems and 27% is conserved nationally as protected areas. Dr. Melania Brenes Monge, Vice-Minister for Education from Costa Rica, presented interinstitutional and intersectoral instruments developed by her country to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They include a series of national policies that cover biodiversity, human development, sustainable consumption of resources, a decarbonization plan and wastewater sanitation, setting a great example globally on how to direct a country towards a sustainable development path.

Mr. Ottavio Di Bella, Deputy Chair of the G20 Environment Meetings, shared some highlights on behalf of the Italian Ministry for Ecological Transition. The G20 has shed light on the need for a more global and coordinated approach to address the global crisis, taking into consideration the interconnectedness of climate change and biodiversity loss. This connection provides areas that are worth investigating to improve climate and biodiversity action. With this in mind, Italy and UNESCO launched an International Environment Expert Network to provide techno-support and training to the staff of UNESCO designated sites and to increase support working with local authorities and managers and share the “lessons learned” from the designated sites.

Belize’s climate and biodiversity action includes placing about 23% of its territorial water under protection and creating a framework for the sustainable use of resources, resilience and improvement of coral reef systems’ health. Dr. Beverly Wade, Ministry of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation of Belize, presented successful initiatives implemented in their UNESCO designated sites through a partnership with the World Heritage Marine Programme: involvement in coral reef restoration programmes, more than 26 coral nurseries established within their 7 Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) and more than 158 thousand corals planted. These ambitious programmes have yielded tangible results, as live corals increased from 6% to 50% over the past 10 years, and invasive species were eradicated.


Youth as Agents of Change and Part of the Solution


UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme has been engaging with youths living and working in biosphere reserves to empower them and to make their voices heard in the global debate on biodiversity conservation and climate change.

Rabecca Laibich from the Mount Elgon Biosphere Reserve in Kenya, shared her experience of raising awareness and making knowledge accessible to the local and indigenous community, while also advocating for youth friendly policies.

Gabriela Martinez, a representative of the Global MAB Youth Network, shed light on the need to integrate transformative education of biodiversity, climate change, and cultural heritage at all levels in informal and formal education. An intergenerational and interdisciplinary global approach can foster a new generation of changemakers.

In conclusion, Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, stressed the importance of such dialogues to share ideas and best practices and to better understand the strong interlinkages between biodiversity and climate change. She highlighted the role of UNESCO’s unique global network of designated sites to foster such dialogues, and to serve as models for building resilience to climate change and reconciling people with nature.


According to the IPCC-IPBES recommendations, we must “stop the loss and degradation of carbon and species rich ecosystems”. To achieve this, everyone must be onboard and engaged, from policymakers to youth as the voice of our next generation.

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