The revision of China’s Cultural Relics Protection Law, a key piece of legislation in cultural heritage protection since its initial enactment in 1982, has completed its public consultation phase. This revision is crucial, and it is imperative climate change impact on cultural relic preservation should guide the legal amendments.

A UN report in 2016 highlighted climate change as a major threat to world heritage. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events can cause significant damage to cultural relics, especially those in natural environments. Long-term climatic shifts are altering the preservation conditions for these relics, hastening deterioration.

In recent years, China has seen significant climate-related damage to immovable tangible cultural heritage. Examples include the flooding in 2020 that damaged over 130 cultural sites, including the Zhenhai bridge in Huangshan, Anhui province, which dates back 500 years to the Ming dynasty. Medium- and low-level relics are particularly vulnerable because of limited funds and manpower.

Beyond extreme weather, climate change also brings gradual impact such as erosion, sedimentation and temperature and humidity changes, which accelerate the degradation of artefacts. This was highlighted in a Greenpeace report this year on the famous grotto wall paintings in Gansu province, where climate change-induced changes in temperature and humidity have led to deterioration of the artefacts.

But while sites such as the Mogao Caves have the resources to combat climate threats, many relics lack adequate support. The lack of funding is just one of the challenges faced by those seeking protection for the over 700,000 lesser-known relics in China.

International recognition of climate change as a significant threat to world heritage underscores the urgency of this issue. The 2023 Dazu Declaration, which advocates for comprehensive conservation of grotto temples in the face of climate change, should serve as a model for national efforts.

The revised Cultural Relics Protection Law should integrate climate change considerations, drawing from China’s 14th five-year plan and the Dazu Declaration. This involves expanding the scope to include more types of relics and enhancing China’s strategies to address climate change impacts on cultural heritage.

It’s vital for the revised law to provide a forward-looking, preventive legal framework, ensuring the protection of China’s cultural heritage against the burgeoning threat of climate change.

Jady Liu, international communications officer, and Li Zhao, researcher, Greenpeace East Asia

The article was first published by SCMP.