An expert working group will be set up to look at the threat that climate change poses to World Heritage sites across the world and develop a response strategy to deal with it, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) agreed in Durban, South Africa today. But UNESCO did not make any decision on whether to put the Everest (Sagarmatha) National Park and two other sites on the UN danger list.

Campaigners and lawyers are calling on the WHC to reconsider listing Everest and other sites at next year’s meeting, when the working group reports. They have also welcomed the overarching climate change initiative, but are demanding urgent action to protect these sites for future generations, as legally required by the World Heritage Convention.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee recognised today that “the impacts of climate change are affecting many and are likely to affect many more World Heritage properties” and that “early action” is needed to respond to these threats.

The Committee accepted a UK proposal to host a meeting of the expert group – including the petitioners – which will report next year, on a response to the threat.

The World Heritage Convention legally requires all countries to pass intact World Heritage Sites to future generations. Campaigners argue that this will not happen unless urgent action is taken to stop the melting of the Himalayas and to prevent many glacial lakes from bursting, threatening the lives of thousands of people and destroying a unique and irreplaceable environment.

The campaign is organised by Pro Public (Friends of the Earth Nepal) and the Climate Justice Programme, and is supported by Friends of the Earth International and notable individuals including Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner. Other groups, including the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy and Foro Ecol�gico del Per�, are also calling for coral reefs in Belize and glaciers in Peru to be added to the danger list as a result of climate change.

Prakash Sharma, Executive Director of Pro Public (Friends of the Earth Nepal) said: “It is a positive sign that the committee has considered our request to address the impact of climate change on the Sagarmatha National Park and has decided to form an expert group to work on recommendations for action.

However, the problems created by climate change in the park are immense. Large glacial lakes are forming which could burst at any moment, destroying the lives and livelihoods of local people. Waiting until the next meeting before taking action may be too late.

“If the majestic beauty of Everest is lost, future generations would never forgive UNESCO for its inaction. It is time for the committee to call for immediate action to protect all those World Heritage Sites which are being, and will be, impacted by climate change.”

Peter Roderick, Director of the Climate Justice Programme said, “Although these sites have not yet been placed on the UN danger list, we are delighted that at long last climate change is on the World Heritage Committee agenda, and that this issue will hopefully now be properly addressed. We appreciate the efforts of the UK delegation and the interventions of New Zealand, the Netherlands, Portugal and St Lucia in helping to make this happen.

“Unfortunately the work of heritage bodies is seriously undermined by the failure of the developed world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We can devise management plans until we are blue in the face, but the legal obligation to pass World Heritage Sites intact on to future generations will not be met without big cuts in emissions.” Friends of the Earth International’s climate campaigner Catherine Pearce said: “Climate change is already happening, and will become an even bigger threat in the coming years. UNESCO must wake up to the danger, and push countries to urgently cut their greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect the best parts of the planet.”