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Protecting World Heritage during the Energy Transition


National strategies and policies for the transition to renewable energy and initiatives for decarbonization are often based on the strategic principles and guidelines set in international agreements and directives. This is, for example, the case in the European Union policies, which have direct influence on national planning. Nevertheless, the implementation of the renewable energy related international agreements or EU directives are often not cross-checked and aligned with national policies and regulations protecting natural and cultural heritage, including or in addition to, World Heritage properties.

It is similarly important that the national policies, programmes and plans, and the accompanying national legal frameworks, include due consideration for the protection of heritage and provide full protection for World Heritage properties. In addition to establishing an appropriate legal framework, a proactive site management approach could effectively supplement the national legal tools and support and strengthen protection measures ensuring the preservation of World Heritage properties for future generations.

By ratifying the World Heritage Convention, States Parties commit to protect and effectively manage the World Heritage properties located on their territory. When implementing the Convention, States Parties should ensure the preservation of World Heritage properties through appropriate policies, legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures. To best balance and harmonize this commitment with the needs and goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the development of renewable energy sources, States Parties should encourage the active engagement of all stakeholders concerned in related actions.

Understanding World Heritage properties and sharing information

As the energy transition moves forward, there is a need to enhance and strengthen the interaction between this goal and the aim goal of protecting World Heritage properties for future generations. This also includes enhancing knowledge about the World Heritage system and terminology (➔ See part 1 on World Heritage Essentials). Even though World Heritage properties are generally well researched, their role in relation to their wider cultural, social, environmental, and economic context is still too often overlooked.

The best strategy to reconcile the interests of World Heritage protection with those of wind energy development is to be fully transparent in the planning processes and to provide easy access to adequately detailed and up-to-date information on World Heritage properties and their Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), as well as the attributes that convey it. National authorities should therefore maintain national inventories/databases with information specific on World Heritage properties located on their territories. The information should be linked to national development databases and plans to facilitate the exchange of information between sectors and provide a tool for project proponents in the early screening process.

Information about World Heritage properties should also be included in national inventories for protected or listed cultural and natural heritage sites. The databases need to be aligned with each other and be stored and kept up to date by national authorities, such as national heritage protection agencies, site management teams and institutions to ensure the reliability of its content. Dedicated websites for the respective World Heritage properties are also efficient platforms in providing detailed information related to each site.

The essential World Heritage specific inventories and databases are advised to include the following information:

  • Statement of Outstanding Universal Value (SOUV);
  • Attributes that convey the OUV;
  • Maps and GIS data of the boundaries and buffer zone(s) of the property;
  • Maps and GIS data (when relevant) of attributes with their descriptions, ➔ see Note 1
  • Management system descriptions, conservation and management plans;
  • Images and photos illustrating attributes and their state of conservation;
  • Results of vulnerability assessments and maps of sensitive areas also in the wider setting of properties; ➔ see Note 2
  • Protection regimes and relevant legal regulations (including planning regulations and guidance that might incorporate policies/regulations for the protection of the OUV beyond the boundary of the property and buffer zone);
  • Bibliographical resources;
  • Any other relevant document on the national, regional and local level.

To be effective and fully serve the purpose of protecting World Heritage properties, inventories and databases should be open to consultation by project proponents and, where possible, be publicly accessible.

Strengthening World Heritage protection in policies and legal frameworks

Many countries in the Europe and North American region play an active role in moving forward the international climate agenda, including through the adoption and implementation of global agreements (for example, the Paris Agreement and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) and the regional strategic directions (such as, the European Green Deal and the EU Climate Action for 2050). The countries are also adapting these international agreements and strategies on a national level and implementing them at national-, sub-national and local-levels. When ratifying and implementing international policies and legislation, specific consideration for World Heritage and other heritage should also be included.

Although the different strategies, policies and frameworks have common objectives, the means of implementation may vary from one country to another. Implementation, at times, can also conflict with existing commitments for the protection of World Heritage properties and the preservation of other protected natural and cultural heritage assets. In such cases, it is the responsibility of all – including the renewable energy sector – to ensure that development proposals respect the protection of World Heritage and improve the national policies towards a better harmonization.

National legal frameworks for the protection of World Heritage

Legal frameworks in Europe and North America typically include national- and/or federal-level protection mechanisms for natural and cultural heritage properties, stipulated in formal legislation, including laws, codes and regulations. The protection of World Heritage properties is often the subject of these laws and their accompanying regulations. Only a few countries have developed a specific World Heritage law, while others include references to ‘sensitive’, protected or heritage areas that may also designate World Heritage properties.

Potential national legal frameworks implementing the World Heritage Convention.

National legal frameworks for planning

Renewable energy projects, including the construction of wind farms, are subject to national legal frameworks that typically include national, regional, and local planning regulations, and supplementary planning documents. Project proposals are also evaluated against spatial planning documents and zoning plans (in general spatial planning coordinates practices and policies affecting spatial organization while relevant plans exist at the national, regional, and local levels).

Authorities responsible for planning decisions for wind energy projects operate mainly on regional and local levels, usually as part of a municipality administration. In addition, governmental and public specialized bodies responsible for the protection of natural and cultural heritage are often involved in the planning process, as statutory consultees or in an advisory role.

Legal tools and policy documents that typically regulate the planning framework in the case of wind energy projects include:

  • International treaties and other type of documents related to renewable energy and wind energy (including European Union Directives, plans and programmes);
  • National policy documents/ development plan and programmes (that include planned strategic outcomes and priorities, also in relation to the renewable energy transition and decarbonization);
  • National planning framework (the highest-level policy document for managing change);
  • Legal regulations for planning on the national/regional/local level (including measures related to impacts assessments: Strategic Environmental Assessments and/or Environmental and Social Impact Assessments);
  • Legal regulations for the protection of environment, cultural and natural heritage/World Heritage properties (considering official databases for natural and cultural heritage);
  • Regional strategies for renewable energy (including wind energy);
  • Spatial planning documents (national/regional/local plans) with zoning maps;
  • Supplementary planning documents (for expanding and specifying policies contained in higher level policy documents on a national/regional/local level);
  • Guidance documents (that could exist at the national, regional and local level for renewable energy project planning and for the protection of natural and cultural heritage/World Heritage).
Hierarchy and potential connection points between different elements of the national legal framework relating to wind energy plans, spatial planning and the protection and management of World Heritage properties.
Additional image showing the action points for different authorities and other stakeholders. (The additional information could be visible after clicking on each relevant element in the original table.)

Potential issues concerning the legal framework for planning and development from a World Heritage perspective 

  • The protection of World Heritage falls primarily under the responsibility of States Parties at all levels and sectors. The Convention, as an international legal instrument, becomes fully operational when adequately implemented and embedded in the national legal system. However, even when institutions and agencies tasked with the protection and management of World Heritage properties are involved in the development of wind energy strategies and policies on the local level, their advice might not necessarily be reflected at the regional, national and/or federal levels. In some cases, planning authorities and institutions lack awareness about the impact the policies, programmes and plans may have on World Heritage properties and their OUV. It would, therefore, be necessary to ensure that World Heritage considerations are integrated in national and/or federal databases, particularly regarding land-use zoning and spatial planning.
  • National or regional energy strategies and local development policies also need to carefully consider World Heritage protection and other levels of heritage protection in the identification of appropriate project sites for renewable energy and that measures incompatible with the protection of World Heritage are avoided.
    • A national legal framework for planning could be considered appropriate, if adequate guidance is provided on all levels for transparent and well-informed decision-making processes, and if compliance is ensured with international legal instruments, including the World Heritage Convention.
    • A legal framework in place for planning wind energy projects may not necessarily include specific measures for the protection of World Heritage properties and their OUV. This may weaken the national authorities’ capacity to protect World Heritage in the decision-making process and may lead to a situation in which a decision taken is justifiable from a legal point of view but fails to comply with the State Party’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention. Such complications are likely to cause delays in the project planning and construction phase.

Depending on the legal framework of a country, planning proposals of high public interest may receive derogation from the application process. They might undergo simplified legal processes and require less scrutiny, involving fewer authorities. Consequently, this may lead to an omission of the relevant institutions and authorities dealing with the protection of World Heritage properties in the process.

  • National and local renewable energy plans and programmes are important strategic documents to guide wind energy project proponents when planning new projects. To make the planning process more predictable, renewable energy policies and strategies should consider including information on World Heritage properties (especially concerning their spatial boundaries and characteristics of their OUV) together with information that may lead to planning restrictions.
  • Information about boundaries of World Heritage properties, buffer zones and ideally areas of influence beyond their boundaries should be included in any GIS-data related to territorial planning and made available to all potential proponents so that they can be taken into consideration even before any feasibility is assessed.
  • Adequate communication and enhanced coordination are also important at the highest level of government (such as the ministry responsible for energy/renewable energy and the ministry responsible for culture and environment) so that all these sectors are aware of the priorities and short/medium/long term strategies on both fields and that plans, policies and programmes are aligned to serve the interest of both.

The Netherlands approved an Environment and Planning Act (2020), which applies to the entire territory of the country and includes an article specifying that provisions must be created to avoid any damage to or the destruction of World Heritage properties. This Act has an overall regulatory effect on lower-level governing tools giving permission to authorities to deny the approval of development applications that might have a negative impact on the OUV of a World Heritage property, even if this impact comes from its wider setting.

In France, a specific guidance document was developed and updated in 2020 (by French Ministry of the Ecological Transition) for the preparation of impact assessments for onshore wind projects. It contains a chapter focusing on the specificities related to World Heritage properties.

In 2020, the Federal Council of Switzerland adopted a ‘Wind Energy Concept. This document sets out how the interests of the Confederation – including the preservation of the World Heritage properties, their buffer zones and wider setting – are to be considered in the planning of wind power plants and identifies areas with potential for wind energy development. This provides decision-makers and project proponents with a planning aid.

The UNESCO publication, World Heritage and Wind Energy Planning (2021), presents case studies from four European countries Austria, France, Germany and Scotland (UK) and showcases practices of wind energy planning in the context of World Heritage properties.

Engaging in early planning for wind energy infrastructures

Starting an early dialogue between the wind energy project proponents and the relevant responsible organizations for World Heritage protection and management is a key step in wind energy planning. This might help to identify early on and prevent potential negative impacts of the wind energy project on World Heritage properties and enable improved coordination and a smooth communication flow.

One of the most effective early planning tools is the preparation of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) for renewable energy and wind energy policies, plans and programmes, as it provides:

  • enhanced planning security and cost efficiency for the wind energy industry;
    • avoiding extra costs and delays due to obligations to redesign or displace projects owing to impairments with World Heritage protection;
    • avoiding loss of investment in case the project must be abandoned or reduced in size after land has been acquired and plans have been developed due to impairments with World Heritage protection;
    • avoiding conflicts with national bodies responsible for the protection of a site or non-compliance with the provisions of the World Heritage Convention and the Operational Guidelines for its Implementation;
  • possibility for the protection and enhanced management of World Heritage properties in a more strategic manner during the energy transition, also by:
    • avoiding negative impacts to the OUV of World Heritage properties and their attributes;
    • enhance the involvement and facilitate dialogue between relevant responsible organizations for the protection and management of World Heritage properties and the national/regional/local authorities responsible for planning, the wind industry and the local communities.

Potential or planned development of wind energy projects related to a specific World Heritage property could also be the topic of an SEA, as an initiative of the site management organization or other relevant authorities.

See Strategic Environmental Assessment in more detail in Impacts of wind energy projects and their assessment

The advantages of early communication between wind energy project proponents and the relevant national bodies have the potential to ensure:

    • the timely identification of any relevant World Heritage related sensitivities and facilitate planning of the scope and focus of an on-site survey;
    • the clarification of local conditions to set the basis for and feed into early design stages (screening and scoping phases of an impact assessment);
    • the early identification of solutions to potential constraints, including mitigation measures or redesign (identifying and predicting impacts for an upcoming impact assessment).

Efficient early communication between key stakeholders, particularly between the project proponent and the environmental and heritage authorities are highly important.

The following actions might also facilitate this communication:

  • The relevant national authorities could:
    • enhance the ‘visibility’ of World Heritage properties in national/regional/local strategies and policies;
    • guide project proponents and facilitate their access to available datasets and databases, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s online platform that includes, for each World Heritage property, the:
      • Statement of Outstanding Universal Value;
      • Nomination dossier of the World Heritage property;
      • ICOMOS and/or IUCN Evaluations;
      • Management system descriptions and plans;
      • State of Conservation reports;
    • develop in consultation with rightsholders, local communities and all relevant stakeholders a land use plan for the property and its surrounding areas. The land use plan, together with other applicable plans such as the Management Plan for a World Heritage property, should be used to inform any development proposals in and around a property.

Impact assessments (Social and Environmental Impact Assessments or Heritage Impact Assessments) for specific wind energy projects, if conducted in the early project planning of wind energy projects and before crucial decisions are made, allow the timely identification of World Heritage interest and early engagement with the relevant authorities responsible for the protection and management of World Heritage properties in a country. Moreover, it will allow the information flow and result of the impact assessment to feed into the early stages of siting, designing and planning of a project while ensuring the protection of World Heritage properties.

➔ See wind energy project phases and lifecycle in Wind Energy Essentials and impact assessments in detail in Impacts of wind energy projects and their assessment

If a wind energy project proposal relates to a World Heritage property, the project proponents need to consider reaching out to the relevant site management organization as soon as possible in the project planning process. The ultimate responsibility for the protection of a World Heritage property, in compliance with the World Heritage Convention, lies with the State Party (through its relevant responsible authorities). The implementation of appropriate measures to protect a property from inappropriate development, however, is usually a shared responsibility between different regional and local level organizations (i.e., municipalities, special authorities, non-governmental organizations).

The guidance Spatial Planning for Onshore Wind Turbines – natural heritage considerations, (by the Scottish Natural Heritage, 2015) offers an overview of how early planning can bring benefits to wind energy projects while ensuring the protection of heritage values and assets. The guidance provides information on how the wind energy industry can actively engage with the heritage sector and offers helpful planning advice, which is complemented by the Planning for Development - Our Service Statement that clarifies the role of Scotland’s Nature Agency (called NaturScot today) in the planning systems.

Proactive conservation actions – enhancing management in view of the energy transition

Management systems and management plans

Management systems and management plans play an important role in the long-term preservation of World Heritage properties. When adequately informed and embedded in national, regional and local planning and legal frameworks, they can become proactive mechanisms for the assessment of potential and occurred change. Well-informed and effective management systems and plans are key tools to be used and consulted in early planning stages of wind energy installations. An up-to-date management plan and/or detailed description of the management system can serve as a key instrument for the identification and avoidance of potential conflicts with World Heritage requirements. Information should include explanations on measures protecting the OUV and refer to conservation objectives and action plans. The responsible national authorities, including the site management, should ensure that World Heritage management plans include information and appropriate measures in relation the buffer zone and the wider setting of World Heritage properties.

Management plans are important documents for a World Heritage property. They document the management system of the property and will usually include a more detailed description of attributes and values than what can be found in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value (SOUV), including analysis of attributes that convey the Outstanding Universal Value, as well as other supporting values. They also set out the measures and needs for protection and management and list the main actors in the management system as well as the most important stakeholders.

Appropriate management systems in place have become a mandatory part of the World Heritage nomination file and need to be regularly monitored and updated (usually every five years). Management plans or documentation of the management systems (including revised versions and related action, conservation, disaster, risk and climate action plans and other relevant documents) should be submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre for information and, where appropriate, review. Alongside the SOUV, they are an important source of information for UNESCO and the Advisory Bodies to monitor processes related to the properties.

Management documentation should be living documents and be available not only for the World Heritage site managers, but also to right holders, other stakeholders, and project proponents. It is also important to integrate the protection provisions defined by management plans into national regulations, legislation, and planning provisions. As these documents are often not directly linked with the national legal framework, they might lack binding force. Nevertheless, they may still be influential documents for national authorities in the planning or other statutory processes.

World Heritage management plans and descriptions of management systems are fundamental resources for providing the key sets of information and data needed to assess and evaluate potential impacts of project proposals and other changes, Wind energy project proponents are therefore advised to consult these documents at an early stage of the planning process.

In the case of transboundary World Heritage properties, the component part of the property in each State Party might have a specific national level management system, but also need to have a joint harmonized intergovernmental management established as well.

The management of serial (national or transnational) World Heritage properties are generally based on management strategies and plans tailored to the specific characteristics of each component (expressed by the attributes that convey the OUV of the entire World Heritage property). Nevertheless, an overarching harmonized strategy for the whole property is also desirable at the intergovernmental level, to provide a coordinated strategy and guidance to all site managers.

➔ See information on transboundary, serial and serial transnational World Heritage properties in World Heritage Essentials.

Vulnerability assessment of World Heritage properties

In addition to the establishment of adequate management systems and the development of management plans for World Heritage properties, other scientific and management tools may be used to enhance the understanding of the features and attributes conveying the OUV of a property and to help better anticipate and prepare for potential changes/developments.

While the boundaries of a World Heritage property and its buffer zone are physical limitations and clearly define an area for protection, vulnerable and sensitive areas may also lay beyond these boundaries. Understanding and mapping attributes helps to assess these aspects of a site as well and allows sensitivity and vulnerability indicators to be linked to the physical elements in the environment, thus forming the basis for sensitivity mapping within the property and its wider setting.

➔ See details about the spatial boundaries of World heritage properties and mapping attributes in World heritage essentials and Note 1

Undertaking a vulnerability assessment and mapping sensitive areas (if spatial data is relevant to specific attributes of the OUV of the World Heritage property) could be a process taking place during the preparation of a nomination for inscription on the World Heritage List. Nevertheless, it is possible to carry this assessment out at any time and also in the framework of an impact assessment. Another possible approach could be the systematic mapping at the national level of the vulnerability of all World Heritage properties in relation to the development of renewable energy/wind energy policies and strategies. This latter process could address the potential impacts of wind energy projects on the OUV and attributes of World Heritage properties and help to assess the risk of these projects (this exercise could be carried out in the frame of a Strategic Impact Assessment).

See Note 2 for mapping sensitive areas and details about Strategic Impact Assessments in Impacts of wind energy projects and their assessment.

The results of vulnerability assessments in wind capacity areas are key datasets. This information can be used not only to inform strategic planning but also to strengthen the protection mechanisms of World Heritage properties. A targeted World Heritage focused study on wind capacity areas could also serve as key information in the assessment of potential impacts of future wind energy project proposals.

The result of vulnerability assessments focused on wind energy development potential could enhance the:

  • identification of World Heritage related areas that overlap with high wind resource potential and which thus indicate potential areas for the construction of wind energy facilities;
  • direct identification of areas/zones where wind energy installation is potentially feasible/not feasible in relation to the vulnerabilities of a World Heritage property (these areas could include the property, its buffer zone and its wider setting);
  • early identification of potential impacts of wind energy projects on the Outstanding Universal Value of specific World Heritage properties.

The sensitivity mapping can feed into the early screening part of the impact assessment for potential wind energy projects.

➔ See for details Impacts of wind energy projects and their assessment and especially ‘Screening’ in the step-by-step guidance

Monitoring World Heritage properties

Monitoring is an essential tool in an adequate World Heritage management system. On the one hand, it is an iterative process applied to track the implementation of management strategies and plans (assessing the effectiveness of measures put in place and ensuring that management strategies are adapted and revised as appropriate to ensure the protection of a World Heritage property and its OUV). On the other hand, monitoring is also a tool for identifying emerging threats and tracking changes in the state of conservation of World Heritage properties. These changes could be due to natural processes, natural and human-caused catastrophic events, but also development projects and other human-induced actions.

In addition to monitoring mechanisms established by the World Heritage Convention, World Heritage properties need to have site-specific monitoring in place as part of the management system to ensure their protection and long-term preservation.

The property level monitoring mechanisms need to assess:

  • the general state of conservation of the property, specifically the OUV of the World Heritage property and the attributes which convey the OUV;
  • the factors affecting the state of conservation;
  • the effectiveness of conservation measures and management system.

Site-specific key monitoring indicators need to be developed in relation to the management plan and should extend not only to the World Heritage property, but also to its buffer zone and wider setting.

As adequate monitoring extends to recording changes induced by developments, an efficient monitoring mechanism could be put in place to effectively filter and alert on impacts (among them potential cumulative impacts) of wind energy infrastructures.

The agreed follow-up actions of specific wind turbines/wind farms already constructed are practical to be included systematically in the World Heritage monitoring system to ensure that the approved mitigation and enhancement measures of the project are adequately followed. This way, unexpected changes can be identified, and action taken. Furthermore, information on monitoring results feeds into the property’s management cycle and informs future wind energy and other planned or proposed projects.

➔ See for details Impacts of wind energy projects and their assessment, especially ‘Follow-up’ in the step-by-step guidance, and Note 6 for cumulative impacts

The World Heritage Convention identifies two main mechanisms for the monitoring of World Heritage properties:

  • Reactive Monitoring is ‘the reporting by the World Heritage Centre, other sectors of UNESCO and the Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committee on the state of conservation of specific World Heritage properties that are under threat’. The Reactive Monitoring process includes, for example, the procedures for inclusion and removal of properties on or from the List of World Heritage in Danger and, in extreme cases, their deletion from the World Heritage List, as well as the provisions of paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines on early notification of the intention to undertake or authorise new constructions in an area protected by the Convention as described below.
  • Periodic Reporting is a self-reporting process that takes place every six years. On a regional basis, States Parties are invited to submit to the World Heritage Committee a Periodic Report on the application of the World Heritage Convention in their territory. Reports are then examined, and the resulting document forms the basis for a Regional World Heritage Action Plan with region specific strategies, priorities, and goals to be implemented by the States Parties.

The provisions established under paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines invite States Parties to the World Heritage Convention to inform the World Heritage Committee, through the Secretariat, of their intention to undertake or to authorize in an area protected under the Convention major restorations or new constructions which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. Notice should be given as soon as possible (for instance, before drafting basic documents for specific projects) and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse, so that they may assist in seeking appropriate solutions to ensure that the Outstanding Universal Value of the property is fully preserved.

This reporting and monitoring mechanism between States Parties and the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies should be part of the early planning for projects located in a World Heritage property, its buffer zone, or its wider setting. Furthermore, the outcome of impact assessments needs to be part of the information provided to UNESCO, so that the Advisory Bodies and UNESCO can fully understand and evaluate the potential impact of the respective projects to the OUV on World Heritage properties.

➔ See for the impact assessment process in Impacts Of Wind Energy Projects And Their Assessment

The project proponents and the national authorities should be aware that in case the reporting and monitoring mechanisms is not respected in the early phases of a project, the consequences might be harder to handle and accept. If the potential adverse impact of a project is only recognized late in the planning process, the need to find project alternatives or mitigation measures could lead to prolonged project preparation and increased costs and could furthermore generate conflicts between the project proponents and the responsible bodies for the protection of World Heritage properties.

Tool for monitoring the effectiveness of the management framework of a World Heritage property
(Source: Managing Natural World Heritage, UNESCO et al., 2011).