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Heritage Responds – Taking Positive Actions on Climate Change

Rob Woodside and Suzanne Huggett-Jones

Cite this as: Woodside, R. and Huggett-Jones, S. 2022 Heritage Responds - Taking Positive Actions on Climate Change, Internet Archaeology 60.

1. Introduction

Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the historic environment, and the heritage sector should be united in our response to this extraordinary challenge. As heritage organisations, we recognise the unique opportunity presented by COP26, the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, to address this issue in line with efforts to 'unite the world to tackle climate change'. The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (IPCC 2022) has made the situation painfully clear – the situation is worsening, and we must act now.

The heritage sector is acutely aware of the potential impacts of climate change on the places we value. We know an increasing amount about the potentially damaging impacts that higher sea levels, increased flooding, storm damages, droughts and temperature have on historic buildings and landscapes, archaeological sites, on our marine heritage, gardens and parklands. We know the impact this will have on people's homes and property, on towns facing increased flooding, on coastal and rural communities.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Heritage Responds report cover image. Image credit: Historic Environment Forum/English Heritage

Heritage matters – people love it, respond to it, debate it. The historic environment is all around us, in landscapes, in buildings and in communities. Heritage forms the backdrop of our everyday lives in cities, towns and countryside across the nation. Thousands of jobs in tourism, hospitality, consultancy and construction depend on it. Millions of people visit heritage sites every year, generating billions in tourism revenue for the economy. Regenerating urban areas brings further investment and pride in town centres. Historic buildings, gardens and landscapes are habitats for protected species and act as the green lungs for our towns and cities. Heritage cannot, however, be defined by buildings, landscapes and places alone; it's about the knowledge and insight heritage offers into how people lived in the past and shaped the world around them. This knowledge, alongside an appreciation of how it has shaped our social and cultural values, help us to make the right choices as we face today's challenges.

We can make a difference – the heritage sector is now committed to finding ways of not only protecting and adapting the places people value, but utilising heritage as a means to support society in meeting the challenges of climate change. Far from being a barrier to mitigation and adaptation, the heritage sector can offer solutions. This document is intended to show how heritage can become part of the solution to the risks and challenges of climate change. Importantly, this isn't just about making statements and promises, but rather sharing what we are already doing, and galvanising further action. The case studies set out here speak for themselves and of the talent, ingenuity, and technical endeavour of so many people working across the heritage sector with partners in academia, government and industry, striving to play their part.

2. Taking Positive Action

We believe heritage can play an active and positive role in addressing the challenge of climate change.

We recognise that if we care about heritage, we need to show the value of the contribution we can make to the climate change debate. We also need to demonstrate real action and commitment to changing how we work, decarbonising our sector and supporting others in making informed decisions. We believe our role is to help people make such decisions about climate change. More than 20% of all homes in England, and around a third of offices in England and Wales date to before 1919 (Whitman et al. 2016; and also Heritage Counts 2019). We know that maintaining and adapting historic buildings avoids the carbon of demolition and new construction. No matter how energy efficient a new building might be there is still a carbon cost of the materials and the construction.

Our role is also to offer solutions. The sector has pioneered research into climate change impacts and is innovating new approaches to vulnerability and hazard assessments. We are harnessing digital technology to inform carbon reduction. We are focusing on new training needs and closing the skills gap to support sustainability. And, importantly, we are working across sectors to develop nature-based solutions to protect heritage better, enhance biodiversity and address the risks of major flooding and sea level rise. And we have an audience of millions. Our understanding of the past and long interaction between people and nature – evident in the archaeological record, monuments, buildings and landscapes that characterise our world – can provide insight into how people can adapt to change. We can help people discover their heritage, understand how places have changed and so bring them together to adapt to change. Our task now is to harness the social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits of heritage to become part of the climate change solution.

3. Heritage Responds

We are already taking action, but there's much more to do. On behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, the HEF COP 26 Task Group – made up of representatives of Historic England, Historic Buildings and Places, the Institute for Historic Building Conservation, the National Trust, Historic Houses, Church of England, English Heritage, the Institute of Conservation (Icon), the Architectural Heritage Fund, Heritage Alliance, Natural England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund – reviewed our current understanding of heritage-related climate change activities. What we found was just how much activity was already underway within the heritage sector and across its partners, and often in collaboration with other bodies.

Overall, the Task Group captured nearly 50 case studies reflecting the breadth, depth and diversity of work already being undertaken by the heritage sector and its partners to address many different aspects of climate change. These are summarised below, but all the case studies are available on-line:

We hope the case studies included here help illustrate the breadth of current activity, get people talking and inspire further positive action. However, they are by no means comprehensive – we know a lot more activity is ongoing and we hope to keep the tool that supports this document, the Heritage Responds Climate Change Story Map, live with future updates. Collaboration is the key to taking things forward. We must continue to talk to others and build new partnerships; it's the interaction of ideas and perspectives that will continue to lead to positive action. And just as climate change knows no boundaries, nor should we.


The authors are grateful to members of the Historic Environment Forum COP26 Task Group and the organisations who submitted case studies for this publication.

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