The Paris Agreement Offers Some Good News for Glaciers

Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)

The 195 countries which took part in COP21 reached consensus on 12 December, bringing the Paris Agreement into being. This accord, in which nearly all nations have stated their specific goals (“nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) in reducing emissions, has been widely acclaimed as a positive step in addressing climate change. With its attention to transparency and monitoring, and with its commitment to a concrete schedule of future steps, it represents a sharp contrast with the vagueness and relative inaction of earlier COPs. But what does this Agreement mean for the glaciers of the world? Though the document focuses primarily on the details of the plans and actions through which countries will reduce their emissions, it does include some elements of relevance to glaciers.

Climate Change Mitigation in the Paris Agreement

Of these elements, the most important is the Agreement’s core,  the global commitment to reducing emissions and to limiting global warming. These offer some protection to glaciers, since glacier retreat is so tightly tied to temperature increases, which in turn are linked to greenhouse gas concentrations. In addition, it provides a more stringent temperature target than those included in decisions at the  earlier COPs. Where these earlier documents spoke of limiting warming to 2 °C, the Paris Agreement calls for “ holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” Though the difference may seem small, it could make a significant difference for glaciers. For discussion of this point, GlacierHub contacted Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich and leader of the university’s Research Group on Environment and Climate: Impacts, Risks and Adaptation. He stated:

Anchoring 1.5° C in addition to 2° in the Paris Agreement is important and substantially matters for glaciers. Although we have a lack of studies analyzing the detailed impacts of 1.5° C vs 2° C on glaciers and downstream regions, we can easily see how much of an effect 0.5° C global temperature change can make to glaciers if we observe the consequences on glaciers of a ca. 0.8° C global temperature increase since the Little Ice Age (and glaciers are yet not in a balance with current climate).

ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative released a detailed report at COP21, titled “Thresholds and Closing Windows: Risks of  Irreversible Cryosphere Climate Change,” which begins to fill the gap that Huggel mentions. This report calculates the projected loss in glacier volume through 2300 for several scenarios, including one that examines the effects of the emissions allowed with the NDCs that were promised at COP21 and another that meets the 1.5C limit. Their models indicate the projected losses for 12 glacier regions of the world. The regions at higher elevations and closer to the poles are less vulnerable, but even so, by 2100 the least vulnerable regions in Patagonia, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic will lose 20-30% of their ice volume in 2000, depending on the scenario, while the most vulnerable regions in the central Andes will face declines of 80-90%. By 2300, the outcome is more severe: even the highest, coldest areas will have lost 50-60% of their ice, and the glaciers will be reduced to less than 5% of their 2000 volume, if they have not fully disappeared.

Climate Change Adaptation in the Paris Agreement

Since the new mitigation plans in the Paris Accords will not be able to  protect glaciers fully, it is positive that the agreement  speaks strongly of the importance of adaptation. Article 7 states “[the] Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2 [and described above].”  The communities that are most directly affected by glacier retreat may also fall under the special protection also described in Article 7, which recognizes the goal “to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Regional Mountain Glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
Regional mountain glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

Moreover, the Agreement contains language which offers recognition of the cultural distinctiveness and long-established knowledge. It  includes “indigenous rights” among the rights which Parties should “respect, promote and consider. ” It  specifically mentions “local communities and indigenous peoples” as non-Party stakeholders. The contributions of mountain peoples, as well as their rights, are recognized in Article 7, which indicates that adaptation action should “be based on and guided by” both “the best available science”, and, when appropriate, “traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems,”

The Agreement contains two specific sections which recognize that the impacts of climate change may be so severe that they cannot be addressed by adaptation. The opening section calls for several bodies within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” Article 8 states “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.” In other words, the Agreement recognizes that glacier retreat may drive people from their established homes in mountain regions, or present them with losses and damages to which they cannot adapt. Huggel commented:

Loss and damage has been one of the most critical and contested issues in Paris. Compensation and liability have been explicitly excluded in the Paris Agreement but are not off  the table. Science and policy need to work on how to deal with different form of loss, including the irreversible loss of glaciers which in many societies comes along with a loss of cultural identity.

Installation of ice from Greenland glaciers at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)
Installation of glacier ice at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)

Beyond  the Paris Agreement: Next Steps

Some issues of importance to glaciers do not appear in the Agreement, which focuses on reductions in emissions. It does not mention black carbon, an important short-lived climate pollutant which reduced snow cover and exacerbates glacier melt in several regions.   Fuller attention to adaptation financing would have offered greater assurance to mountain regions, which have already been experiencing the effects of glacier retreat for decades. Nonetheless, the Agreement addresses several elements of importance to communities and ecosystems which rely on glaciers: it advances on mitigation and adaptation, it recognizes indigenous peoples and local communities, and it discusses displacement and loss and damage.

Lonnie Thompson, a  paleoclimatologist, widely known for his ice-core research around the world, offered this assessment of the Agreement.

I do not think the Paris talks should be viewed as a “make it or break it” on climate change as it is a complex process with so many players involved.   However, most physical and biological systems contain thresholds. Ice is perfectly stable below freezing,. and above freezing it just melts.  It is the potential thresholds in our climate system that I worry about.  When it comes to global climate change, nature is the time-keeper and none of us can see the clock to know just how much time we have to come up with a binding solutions however the global retreat of glaciers very clearly tell us that the clock is ticking.   Unfortunately, at least in the foreseeable future. the glaciers will continue to retreat. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.  We still have a lot of work to do!

It seems likely that mountain countries will be aware of this work that lies in the future. They will pay close attention to the implementation of these provisions and to the promotion of stronger action in future years.

Other News from COP21

Representatives of seven small glacier countries (Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway) met a COP21 to discuss topics of common interest. They agreed on several follow-up actions and planned to meet again. For more information, see here.

UNESCO held a conference entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change” just before  COP21. It brought together over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in creating direct dialogue and exchange between indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—and scientists and policy-makers. The speakers emphasized that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy. For more information, see here.