Meeting at COP21 Seeks Coordination of Glacier Countries

Eighteen people, representing seven small mountain countries, gathered on 8 December at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris to discuss glacier retreat and its consequences. They reviewed the issues that they considered most serious and considered the possibility of forming an international organization of glacier countries.

Meeting 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21 with Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel source: Svetlana Jumaeva)
Discussion 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

This meeting included representatives from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway; among them were country negotiators at the COP21, leaders in national agencies and NGOs, and officials within bilateral aid organizations, as well as academics and one UN official. It was organized by Ben Orlove, the managing editor of GlacierHub, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the working group of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia. He attended COP21 as an official observer of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The meeting was facilitated by Miguel Saravia of CONDESAN, the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, who facilitated the access at the COP site to Peru’s office suite. This facility, available to the Peruvian delegation and their guests, provided a haven of quiet and privacy, conducive to discussion and reflection, within the bustle of the COP.  It drew on the suggestions of the representatives of the glacier countries, expressed in prior conversations and meetings with Orlove in the months leading up to the COP; in the days before the 8 December meeting, delegates from Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, whose schedules impeded participation in that meeting, offered a number of ideas that were included in the discussion there.

Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives source: Ben Orlove
Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives (source: Ben Orlove)

The impetus of the meeting came from examples set by other organizations that bring together countries sharing common climate change impacts. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Arctic Council, and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations. Another such group, the Delta Coalition, which was announced at the COP on 2 December, links 12 countries to make deltas more visible in global policy discussions, establish partnerships, and undertake concrete actions in order to increase resilience in these regions.

Though the sense of the meeting was that further discussion and study was needed before a Council of Small Glacier States or some similar organization could be established, the group achieved a number of positive steps: examining possible activities for such an organization, conducting a ranking exercise of concerns, reviewing cases that could offer suggestions for the organizations, and establishing concrete action steps to take before the next meeting of the group.

At the outset of the meeting, the participants agreed on the great breadth of possible activities for an organization of glacier countries. Eric Nanchen of the Swiss-based Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions spoke of “knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building,” to which Rasmus Bertelsen of Norway’s University of the Arctic added “policy-shaping networks.” The social actors within the countries similarly ranged broadly across government, universities, local communities, civil society institutions, and businesses.

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

The participants also recognized a variety of structural forms. Emphasizing the value of drawing on existing efforts, Andrew Taber of the Mountain Institute (TMI) argued for inclusion within larger mountain organizations, such as the Mountain Forum or the Mountain Partnership, within which TMI has a leadership role. Others, such as Benjamín Morales Arnao of Peru’s National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, underscored the distinctiveness of glaciers, with their close association with climate change; Firuz Saidov and Anvar Khomidov of the Tajikistan Committee for Environment Protection indicated the specific issues of water resource management and hazards faced by glacier countries at the headwaters of international watersheds. Summarizing this discussion, Thinley Namgyel, Chief Environment Officer of the Climate Change Division of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, emphasized that any new group would “not want to duplicate” existing efforts.

As a first step to provide focus, Orlove led the group in a ranking exercise. The participants reviewed an initial set of glacier-related issues and added other issues to the list. Each one then allocated five points across these issues, giving no issue more than two points. Three issues—hydropower planning and water resources, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems, training and human resource development—all rose to the top. The other issues—reduction of black carbon, tourism planning, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and outmigration from mountain areas—received much smaller numbers of points. The rankings from the Asian and Latin American delegates were quite close to those of the European delegates.

Participants at meeting of glacier countries, COP21 8 December 2015 source: Ben Orlove)
Tajik and Peruvian participants at meeting of glacier countries (source: Ben Orlove)

With these issues in mind, participants offered examples of prior activities. Jorge Recharte, the Andes Program Director of TMI, discussed an exchange program which linked Peru, Nepal and Tajikistan: researchers, government officials and community members formed committees to plan for early warning systems and risk reduction for glacier lake outburst flood hazards. He pointed to the great potential of incorporating local knowledge into research and adaptation, though he also reminded the group of the challenges of assuring ongoing funding—a point that others recognized. Muzaffar Shodmonov of the Tajikistan State Agency for Hydrometeorology spoke of coordination of glacial monitoring across a number of countries. Bertelsen suggested that the group consider as an example the University of the Arctic, based in Norway’s Tromsø University. This university links a number of other universities in countries within the Arctic Council, and has served effectively to develop and apply knowledge. He suggested that the emerging plans  of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to develop a Himalayan University Consortium might be a similar center; Orlove suggested that it could be linked to the University of Central Asia.  Matthias Jurek, an Austrian involved with the United Nations Environmental Programme, also mentioned a number of programs that draw together research and adaptation efforts in different glacier countries, including UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program. Like Bertelsen, Jurek suggested points of overlap between glacier projects and polar endeavors—linking glaciers to the global cryosphere as well as to mountains. This connection had also been raised by Pam Pearson of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who spoke with several participants moments before the meeting but who was unable to attend due to prior commitments.

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

As the meeting progressed, the discussion shifted to concrete action steps. Namgyel’s emphasis on the need for additional work underscored this direction. Jurek proposed a mapping exercise to develop a full list of glacier-related institutions in small mountain countries involved in research, adaptation programs, training and communication. Orlove suggested close attention to the human and social dimensions of glacier retreat, as well as the physical and hydrological aspects. Orlove also proposed developing a grid that would examine the different combinations of activities, structural forms and issues, as a way to locate “low-hanging fruit” that could serve as initial efforts to link countries. The Central Asia-Himalaya link suggested the possibility that such efforts could be drawn on selected regions, rather than the full range of glacier countries around the world.

As the end of the hour allotted for the meeting approached, the participants discussed possible venues for the next meeting of the group. Several people mentioned the World Mountain Forum in Uganda in October 2016 and COP22 in Morocco in November 2016, which is likely to have a thematic focus on water issues, though the possibility of a separate standalone conference was also raised. The participants agreed to remain in contact. This conference indicated that small mountain countries can do more together than they can do alone. The broad awareness of the potential for such coordinated action should provide the stimulus for future actions.

New Report Addresses Mountain Sustainability

A major new report provides a thorough summary of research and an innovative discussion of development efforts in mountain regions. This report, titled ‘Mountains and Climate Change: A Global Concern,’ was published in December 2014 by the Mountain Partnership as part of the UN Sustainable Mountain Development Series. The Mountain Partnership is an international organization, dedicated to sustainable mountain development, which partners with the United Nations.

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
Tropical Andes: Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

The report was developed for the 20th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20), which was held in Lima, Peru, in December 2014. Integrating a variety of perspectives from researchers and practitioners, the report synthesizes and analyzes adaptation-mitigation strategies and relevant policy recommendations about climate change vulnerabilities in the mountain regions in order to understand problems and solutions. These together seek to define and understand both the problem space and the solution space for sustainable mountain development globally world-wide. Case studies on glaciers presented in the report cover the mountains of the Alps, the tropical Andes, the Himalayas, the Carpathians of Eastern Europe and Kyrgyzstan.

One of these case studies reports on historical and current changes in the tropical Andes. It finds that smaller glaciers have been retreating relatively faster than larger glaciers. It includes projections for the 0°C mean annual isotherm (the altitude at which the average temperature is at the freezing point of water) so that glaciers may be maintained. This isotherm, also known as the freezing level, may move upslope by hundreds of meters by the year 2100, leading to increased melting and glacier retreat. The report suggests that precipitation patterns over the Andes are stable and will not raise water scarcity concerns, but rising temperatures at higher altitudes will increase evaporation and lead to water deficiencies.

This short 2012 World Bank Video ‘Melting glaciers: The Slow Disaster in the Andes’ provides an overview of impacts of changing climate on Andean water

The Carpathian region in Europe, discussed in a second case study, is home to a long mountain range with relatively fewer and smaller glaciers. These mountains are also facing impacts from climatic changes. At the Fourth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Carpathian Convention (COP4) in 2014, strategies for adaptation to climate change in this region was adopted. Some of these recommendations include developing funding mechanisms including a plan for compensating mountain areas for the service and goods they provide, building  knowledge hubs and platforms for sharing information.

A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)
A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)

Temperatures during the summer have shown an increase in the Carpathian region, contributing to melting, even though winter temperatures remained relatively unchanged. The report suggests that in the last 50 years, precipitation over this mountain region has overall been more intensified and displays a spatially varying “mosaic pattern” which has anomalous increase in few locations and decrease in others. These changes have been attributed to the effects of a pattern of increasing localization of storms. The report calls for further studies to describe processes that affect glacier retreat and to reduce the uncertainties in projections, and it places high priority on the regional capacity building and financial investment in the region.

A Himalayan Avalanche (Photo:Flickr)
A Himalayan avalanche (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr)

This report reasserts with higher confidence findings in earlier documents such as “Mountain glaciers are key indicators of climate change” and “Glacier changes are the most visible evidence of global climate change we have.” It underscores that retreating glaciers are modifying the regions’ hydro-climatology, and this change is in turn causing a cascade of hazards such as landslides, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), and rock falls. The report recommends sustaining mountain economies through integrated risk management and water management approaches incorporate participatory governance and decision making. It stresses that most mountain ranges are found in developing countries, but that the bulk of the responsibility for climate change lies with developed countries. Finally, the report highlights the importance of including glaciers and mountain climate change in the United Nation Development Programme’s Post-2015 Development Agenda and in Sustainable Development Goals which will orient global development efforts in coming decades. In this way, the report serves not only as a synthesis of prior research but as a guide for future action.