Glaciers Feature Prominently at COP24 in Poland

From 2-14 December 2018, 197 countries gather in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or better known as COP24. During these two weeks of negotiations, countries will attempt to finish what they started in Paris three years ago. In Paris, parties set 2018 as the deadline to come up with robust plans for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which will include significant reductions in carbon emissions as well as an increased commitment to sustainable development.

Mountain countries are taking an active role in this year’s conference, and the impact of future warming scenarios on glacier melting, sea level rise, and mountain communities has been a prominent point of discussion throughout.

16 November 2018

Postcards created by over 125,000 children from around the world are compiled into a mosaic at the base of Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier, spelling a message across the snow. “STOP GLOBAL WARMING #1.5 DEGREES C,” it reads, serving as a gesture to countries preparing for COP24. According to Swiss glaciologists at the University of Zurich, the Aletsch glacier, though currently the largest expanse of continuous ice in Western Europe, is receding at a rate of 12 meters per year, and it could completely disappear by 2100.

The quote references the findings of the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, published in October 2018. In order to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change, the report urged limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of the 2 degrees Celsius agreed upon in Paris three years ago.

3 December 2018

“We can’t afford to fail in Katowice,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his opening remarks at COP24. He thinks that public will to fight climate change has faded since Paris in 2015, and now climate change is “running away from us.” Notable climate change impacts detailed in the IPCC special report, such as increasing temperatures, sea level rise, and receding glaciers, are happening faster than we expected.

Speaking up for small states in attendance, Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi said that Nepal has “been bearing the brunt of disproportionate impact of climate change despite being a low carbon-emitting country… We feel as if we have been penalised for the mistakes we never made. It is incumbent on the international community to ensure that justice is done.”

4 December 2018

UNESCO, in partnership with the Norwegian GRID-Arendal Foundation, presents a new report, titled “Andean Glacier and Water Atlas: the impact of glacier retreat on water resources,” which details the consequences of glacier retreat on water availability and security for communities who depend on glaciers for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture, and other industries. Since the 1980s, when Andean glaciers were in a period of peak discharge, there has been less and less meltwater each year. This has huge negative impacts on communities who depend on glacial meltwater, and even more so during times of drought.

Precipitation trends suggest that snow cover will continue to decrease, along with temperatures rising 2-5 degrees Celsius in the tropical Andes and 1-7 degrees Celsius in the southern Andes. The report further estimates that even under moderate warming scenarios, low-altitude glaciers in the tropical Andes could lose 78 to 97 percent of their volume in the 21st century.

  • Peru, home to the largest number of tropical glaciers on the continent, has seen extremely rapid glacier retreat, with very few, brief intermittent periods of advancement.
  • Venezuela’s only remaining glacier will likely cease to exist by 2021.
  • Bolivia’s glaciers have lost more than two-thirds of their volume since the 1980s.
  • Colombia is also experiencing rapid glacier retreat; by 2050 the sole survivors will be the largest glaciers at the highest altitudes.
  • Ecuador’s glaciers have been subject to dramatic losses in the last 50 years.
  • Chile and Argentina are seeing accelerating melting among low-lying freshwater and tidewater glaciers in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

5 December 2018

The World Health Organization (WHO) releases the COP24 special report: health and climate change. The report implicates anthropogenic climate change as the source of huge challenges for human health. The same industries who emit greenhouse gases, which warm the planet, are also responsible for emitting PM2.5, which harms human health. Within the public health and climate change conversation, glaciers receive a small but important cameo on black carbon. Black carbon, a by-product of inefficient combustion (from cookstoves, diesel engines, biomass, etc.) is second only to CO2 emissions in its global warming contribution. 

Not only is black carbon important on a global scale, but it also has impacts on regional climate systems. Black carbon works to accelerate glacier retreat in mountainous regions as well as the Arctic. As it settles, black carbon darkens a glacier’s surface, absorbing instead of reflecting heat, and inducing glacial melting.

Read more about black carbon on GlacierHub.

The Global Carbon Project reports that global CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 2.7 percent by the end of 2018. Following a brief stagnation in global CO2 emissions from 2014-2016, emissions rose by 1.6 percent. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or briefly overshoot it and come back down), global emissions need to be drastically decreasing, not increasing, and at current levels the world will certainly exceed this threshold by 2030.  

7 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – Mountain regions moving towards carbon neutrality

This side event’s keynote speaker, Eric Nanchen, is the director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions (FDDM). His talk covered climate change impacts and vulnerability of mountain regions, in the context of laying foundations for sustainable development. He also discussed the Mountain Research Initiative’s #VanishingGlaciers campaign, which is also being promoted at COP24. Deputy Secretary General of the Alpine Convention, Marianna Elmi, discussed steps that Alpine countries are taking toward climate neutrality, for example, coming up with a climate target system for 2050. 

10 December 2018

Newly released maps from NASA indicate that a group of four glaciers on the eastern coastline of Antarctica have been losing ice over the last decade. Since 2008, these four glaciers, which are located just to the west of the massive Totten glacier, have lost about 9 feet of their surface height. Prior to these findings, East Antarctica was thought to be much more stable than its western counterpart.

11 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – International Mountain Day – Mountain adaptation: Vulnerable peaks and people

On International Mountain Day, UN Environment releases two reports: Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series – Synthesis Report, and its more regionally focused counterpart, Outlook on climate change adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The same day, in an UNEP press release, Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director at UN Environment says, “Mountain ranges are extremely complex ecosystems home to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. It is critical that we focus on helping these communities adapt to changing climate in mountain regions.”

The synthesis report begins by framing the importance of mountain ecosystems, which cover 25 percent of the Earth’s landmass, house 15 percent of the world’s population, and provide essential ecosystem services to over half the world’s population. The report then goes on to call mountainous regions the “frontline of climate change.” Mountainous regions are subject to altitude amplification, whereby warming at high altitudes actually occurs at a faster rate than the global average, much like it does at the poles. Almost every mountain in the world is seeing substantial glacier retreat, which impacts ecosystems all the way downstream. In addition, the steep, sometimes unstable terrain leaves mountain communities more susceptible to floods and landslides. The synthesis report strives to capture regional differences in primary risk factors, climate change impacts, and current policy gaps in order to identify potential adaptation measures for each region.

The second report specifically targets the Hindu Kush Himalaya, and is actually part of a progressive series which has previously covered other mountainous regions around the world. The Hindu Kush Himalaya are of particular importance because it is already one of the most disaster-prone regions on Earth. Further, the report states this region could warm upwards of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2100. The disproportionate warming effects of climate change at altitude, coupled with increased severity of precipitation events and the high probability of natural disasters in Hindu Kush Himalaya all work in tandem to make the region even more vulnerable to global warming.

12 December 2018

Side Event – IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, NDCs and Cryosphere: Pathways for Both High Urgency and Ambition

This event was focused on the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, and working within the emissions constraints set by the report to minimize any further damage incurred by positive global warming feedbacks such as sea level rise and other impacts on mountainous and polar areas. Discussion was focused primarily on how to incorporate cryosphere considerations into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCS) for 2020 in order to minimize future risk and impact. 

During closing remarks for the COP24 High-Level Segment of the Talanoa Dialogue, the Secretary General makes note of three reports published in the past few days that “added to the long list of warnings signals.” Among them is the special WHO report on human health and climate change and NASA’s research showing signs of glacier melting in East Antarctica, which are both discussed above. He used these current events to show that we cannot ignore the rapidly accumulating effects of climate change, and to encourage countries to participate in successful policy-creation during COP24’s final days.  

 

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