COP26 | A Fragile Future: Can Mountain Communities Adapt to Climate Change?
MRI News
article written by MRI
08.11.21 | 06:11

Taking place as part of COP26 on 8 November, the focus of this session was on the impacts and risks of climate change in the cryosphere in Latin America, Central Asia, and the Andes, and how communities in our changing mountains can adapt. This session was contributed to by several representatives of the MRI.

The vast high latitude and high altitude cold regions of the world provide freshwater to over half of humanity. As a result of climate change, they are under threat. But which impacts of climate change are already being felt in the cryosphere? And which risks are mountain regions exposed to, both now and in the future? This session focused on Latin America, Central Asia, and the Andes aimed to address these questions, and explore adaptation options that offer potential solutions to the challenges and opportunities these regions face. It was jointly hosted by the COP26 Cryosphere Pavilion and the COP26 Geneva Cryosphere Hub.

Innovative agents of change

In his opening words of welcome, Professor Jörg Balsiger, MRI Chair and Director of the Institute for Environmental Governance and Territorial Development at the University of Geneva, stressed that – while the week of proceedings at the COP26 had demonstrated that progress could be made – the urgency of the situation humanity faces could not be overstated. “We must make no mistake; we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Almost all that is currently promised remains to be done. It is likely that it will not be enough, and we will therefore need to pay much greater attention to adaptation.”

Mountain regions, Balsiger pointed out, are disproportionately exposed to the impacts of climate change. “In this sense, mountain communities are indeed facing a fragile future, linked to the cryosphere and far beyond that as well. But they have also shown us in many places around the world that they are not helpless. That they are already adapting, and that they can do so as active and innovative agents of change.”

“We have all witnessed how fear, misinformation, and conspiracy theories can spread. To counter this, the efforts and experiences of scientists, practitioners, and policymakers are crucial, across disciplines and professions, and from the local to the global. In order for dialogue to be constructive and lead to action, connections and connectors are needed.” – Professor Jörg Balsiger, MRI Chair and Director of the Institute for Environmental Governance and Territorial Development at the University of Geneva.

Cascading impacts

The first of the presentations that followed was held by MRI Principal Investigator Christian Huggel, Professor at the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich, who gave an overview of the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere and mountain regions. The message was stark: the cryosphere is in rapid decline as a result of anthropogenic climate change. “Where we are headed heavily depends on emissions pathways,” said Huggel. “With low emissions, we can preserve around 50 percent of glaciers. With high emissions, we lose almost everything.” This loss poses a threat to the people and ecosystems reliant on mountain water sources, and as ecosystems degrade there is also loss of important service functions; tropical mountain wetlands that currently store carbon, for example, could potentially be transformed from carbon sinks to carbon sources.

What is more, said Huggel, mountain terrain is becoming less stable and disasters are increasing. His presentation highlighted the Chamoli event that took place in the Indian Himalayas in February of this year, killing over 200 people and destroying important hydropower and other infrastructure.

“The cascading nature of impacts in mountains is key, with complex interplay between natural and human drivers,” said Huggel. “The same climactic driver can generate very disproportionate damage and loss in different economic sectors and population groups.”

Children India Cricket Himalaya

“This is about people. And this is about children,” said Christian Huggel as he concluded his presentation. Pictured: Children playing cricket in the Indian Himalayas, a region highly exposed and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Image: Eartha Cranston / Pixy.

Huggel was followed by Randy Muñoz Asmat, a PhD candidate in Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich, who took a closer look at the impacts and risks of climate change in the Andes, where glaciers have lost half their ice over the last 40-50 years. What is more, said Muñoz Asmat, almost all of the glaciers in the region will disappear under any of the climate agreements that were in the process of being negotiated during the COP26.

In the Andes, water scarcity and food insecurity is the key risk identified for people living in the region. Furthermore, many vulnerable people with low incomes live on the shores of rivers, making them exposed to landslides, floods, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). Meanwhile, although studies have shown that vegetation is adapting to climate change by moving towards higher elevations, there is only so far it can go. “Different ecosystem services that support people’s lives and livelihoods in the region will face limitations,” concluded Muñoz Asmat. “And people who are not exposed to these hazards now will be in the future.”

The need for data

Professor Martin Hölzle of the University of Fribourg then presented work being undertaken by the university in collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to create a sustainable cryospheric monitoring network in Central Asia, and issued a compelling call for data and capacity building in the region. “We need data to make certain models for the future. If we are lacking data, we cannot make accurate models”

This call for data was echoed by Professor Markus Stoffel of the University of Geneva, who gave an overview of the impacts of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau – or the Third Pole, so-called because it contains the largest freshwater resources outside of the Polar regions. However, with glaciers retreating across most areas of the Himalayas, these water resources, and the 2 billion people who rely on them, are under threat.

But this is not the only issue the Third Pole faces. Stoffel also outlined that by end of the century in an ice-free scenario 13,000 new lakes will form in areas where we still have glacier ice today – and with them comes the risk of GLOF for people and infrastructure downstream.

The transboundary GLOF threat is also expected to be amplified, with Stoffel anticipating new GLOF events occurring in a hotspot in Tajikistan, with impacts in Afghanistan: “In many instances, these transboundary regions where we have these events going across the border occur in contexts where the relations between countries are not necessary the best.”

Adaptation in our changing mountains

MRI Executive Director Carolina Adler, who also moderated the event, then took to the stage to discuss adaptation. She began her presentation by pointing out that, according to the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2021, progress has been made across all indicators of adequate and effective adaption planning – but that there are still glaring gaps. This global snapshot is also comparable with what we know for mountain regions, said Adler, referencing the findings of the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate and the mountains GAMI reanalysis conducted as part of the upcoming WGII contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, of which Adler is a lead author.

“We concluded that addressing persistent systemic vulnerabilities in context is really important. By this, we mean socioeconomic and sociocultural issues that can also exacerbate the conditions under which adaptation can be achieved, such as poverty, alongside sustainability compatible measures such as nature-based solutions, which offer prospects for transformative adaptation. And transformative measures are required, given the pace of change and the impacts already being experienced in mountain regions.” At present, however, reported adaptation in mountain areas is occurring incrementally, and is fragmented, largely autonomous, under-resourced, and is being undertaken in response to negative impacts and risks, rather than leveraging or creating new opportunities.

Adler also highlighted two key caveats in terms of successful adaptation. “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees or less is imperative. There are hard biophysical limits and much narrower adaption windows of opportunity in regions such as mountains under higher emissions scenarios as compared to lower emissions scenarios.” It is also vital that when implementing, tracking, and reporting on adaptation progress we are cognizant of how this is being done, by whom, on whose behalf, and by which narratives and standards. “Equity and climate justice are also at the heart of what should constitute this success criteria. There are no win-win solutions, but only trade-offs and compromises that need to be carefully considered in terms of who stands to gain, and whose climate risks are set to be averted, and how.”

A video message from Swiss Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga concluded the presentations, and heralded the beginning of a lively roundtable discussion moderated by Elena Manaenkova, Deputy Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization.

Watch Now | A Fragile Future: Can Mountain Communities Adapt to Climate Change?

A Fragile Future: Can Mountain Communities Adapt to Climate Change? A COP26 event jointly hosted by the COP26 Cryosphere Pavilion and the COP26 Geneva Cryosphere Hub on 8 November 2021. 

Speakers: Prof. Jörg Balsiger
(University of Geneva, Chair Mountain Research Initiative); Prof. Christian Huggel (University of Zürich, Principal Investigator Mountain Research Initiative); Prof. Martin Hölzle (University of Fribourg); Prof. Markus Stoffel (University of Geneva); Randy Muñoz, (University of Zurich); Dr. Carolina Adler (Mountain Research Initiative); Elena Manaenkova (Deputy Secretary-General, WMO); Dr. Radha Wagle (UNFCCC Focal Point, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forests and Environment, Nepal); Ms. Nino Tkhilava (UNFCCC Focal Point, Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, Georgia); Janine Kuriger (Head, Global Programme Climate Change and Environment, SDC); Marlene Kronenberg (Glaciologist, University of Fribourg, Founder of Adventure of Science: Women and Glaciers in Central Asia); Miguel Vera-Lugo (Biologist, Consorcio para el Desarrollo Sostenible de la Ecorregión Andina CONDESAN); Izabella Koziell (Deputy Director General, ICIMOD); with the participation of members of the Swiss delegation.​


Cover image by hazelucyxuan via Pixabay.