Kakadu National Park: a World Heritage area of "significant concern".

The week-long International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Parks Congress has culminated with a major international agreement to conserve the world’s natural assets, boost investment in climate change and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples. It also led to federal environment minister Greg Hunt publicly committing to ban dredge dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Promise of Sydney vision includes pledges from governments, international organisations, the private sector, Indigenous leaders, community groups and individuals to enact commitments including scaling up ocean protection, halting rainforest loss and better managing protected areas. It also sets out a pathway for achieving an agreed global target to protect at least 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of oceans by 2020.

The one-in-a-decade WPC brought together over 6000 people including scientists, economists, NGOs, UN officials and experts and representatives from over 170 nations. The discussions and keynote presentations tackled topics including environmental accounting, reducing the risk and impact of disasters, improving food and water security, halting biodiversity loss and promoting human health through engagement with natural areas.

UNESCO director general Irina Bokova

The latest Protected Planet report, launched during the WPC by IUCN and the United Nations Environment Programme, showed that while the world is on track to meet the agreed global target, more work is needed to ensure that areas of importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services are well and equitably managed.

“Protected areas are by far the best investment the world can make to address some of today’s biggest development challenges,” Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN director general said.

“The Congress has propelled major commitments from leaders across all levels of society to secure the benefits protected areas provide to humanity and ensure a sustainable future. Drawing on the collective knowledge of over 5000 top protected area experts – and many others who care about the future of our planet – the Promise of Sydney now captures innovative strategies to protect these exceptional places.”

Some of the specific pledges included the federal government’s commitments to allocate:

  • $2 million to boost threatened species protection in national parks
  • $6 million to support Coral Triangle marine protection
  • $6 million to combat illegal logging across the Asia-Pacific
  • new initiatives to protect the Great Barrier Reef and Antarctica

“Australia is proud to have co-hosted such a successful Congress and equally proud of our own commitments in the Promise of Sydney,” Mr Hunt said in his closing statement yesterday.

“They range from banning capital dredge disposal in the Great Barrier Reef and a historic agreement with China to ban mining in Antarctica, to new initiatives to recover the rainforests of the Asia-Pacific and to halt species loss in our national parks. It has been an inspirational Congress – now it is time to deliver the innovative solutions to the challenges facing our planet.”

Economic benefits of conservation

A key focus of the event was on economic benefits and cost-effectiveness of conserving the world’s natural areas, including their contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Congress delegates

An IUCN study funded by Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, launched at the WPC, The benefits of natural world heritage : identifying and assessing ecosystem services and benefits provided by the world’s most iconic natural places, is the first assessment of the benefits and ecosystem services provided by the listed World Heritage Areas. It also presents a global analysis of carbon storage and water provided by the sites, using latest data including remote sensing, compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

“The findings of this report show that natural World Heritage is much more than a list of iconic sites with outstanding biodiversity and natural beauty,” Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme said.

“Recognising their crucial role in supporting our well-being reinforces the need to boost our efforts to conserve these places.”

The research shows that two-thirds of natural sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are crucial sources of water and about half help prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides. Over 90 per cent of listed natural sites provide income from tourism and recreation and create jobs, with the Great Barrier Reef WHA for example generating $5.2 billion a year in tourism revenue and $250 million a year from fishing in addition to providing a sustainable income to traditional Aboriginal owners who manage parts of the reef.

The importance of environmental accounting

Former head of national accounts for the Australian Bureau of Statistics and co-author of the forthcoming Natural Capital Risks report, Carl Obst, gave a presentation on environmental accounting and the valuation of natural capital both in counting the national beans and in terms of risks to business from degradation of natural resources and loss of ecosystem services.

In recognition of the range of benefits natural areas provide for human society, the WPC has called for new financing models that combine private and public funding to maintain protected areas.

Bess Nungarrayi Price

The Northern Territory’s minister for parks and wildlife, Bess Nungarrayi Price, was part of a delegation that attended the congress.

“The World Parks Congress brings together some of the most influential people from all walks of life in a common endeavour towards conservation and sustainability,” Ms Price said.

“As the Congress is held only once every 10 years, this was an incredible opportunity for the Northern Territory to strengthen conservation targets whilst engaging with an audience that included government and general members of society who care about the health of our planet.

“A strong message from this Congress is that the health of humanity depends on the health of our natural areas, and that protected areas, our national parks and reserves, are the foundation to securing this healthy future.”

Ms Price said that the Promise of Sydney will help to create new sustainable commitments for protected areas across the conservation, development and business sectors.

“For the first time, the Congress will collate and communicate the most compelling and inspiring solutions to global challenges.” she said.

“Another key element was how to implement bio conservation strategies around that vision, balancing the need for local economic development, jobs and growth.”

Australian world heritage areas of “significant concern”

The IUCN released several major reports in conjunction with the WPC, including the Green List of Protected Areas – the first global standard for excellence in protected area management. The Green List currently includes 23 sites around the world including Cape Byron State Conservation Area, Arakwl National Park and Montague Island off the NSW South Coast.

It also launched World Heritage Outlook, an online resource that rates the degree of threats to the world’s listed World Heritage Areas, the effectiveness of their management and the current state of their natural heritage values. Three Australian world heritage areas have been rated as areas of “significant concern” – Kakadu National Park, the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests of tropical Queensland.

The IUCN’s comments on the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area showcased some of the threats that apply across numerous other areas, including those of significant concern.

The IUCN rates the area’s threat level as high and states, “Most of the current threats are from activities outside the WHA boundary including coal mining. Although these threats are high they are capable of being resolved by better planning and management of these buffer areas. The main potential threats are from urban development in the buffer area, the proposed raising of the Warragamba Dam and climate change. While all of the threats rank ‘high’, all except climate change are capable of resolution by national and state land use coordination.”

  • The full text of The Promise of Sydney can be read here