The 27th edition of the UN Climate Change Conference will take place from November 7-18, 2022. Carolina Adler, Executive Director of the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), CDE scientist, and one of the lead authors of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report will be present in Sharm el-Sheikh. She points out the importance of the conference for mountain regions and says: “I hope that the momentum isn’t lost!”
Interview: Heather Turnbach*
For the first time in 30 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report at the beginning of 2022 devoted a special cross-chapter paper on mountain regions. What importance do you attach to this?
It’s of huge importance for the mountain community, not least given the observance of the UN General Assembly’s International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development in 2022. This paper was a unique opportunity to synthesise different types of evidence and mountain-related content from across the Working Group II report and contribution to the IPCC’s sixth assessment, providing a global overview of the state of the mountains under a changing climate.
We’ve accumulated over 20 years of evidence to show that mountains are one of these key hotspots where we’ve seen an accelerated pace of change. One big takeaway moment was realizing that the climate change projections made almost 30 years ago for mountains, which we thought we’d see manifesting by the mid-21st century, have already happened in the last 10 years. Mountains are taking the heat.
But it could also be interpreted as neglect until now – especially since mountain areas are particularly affected by global warming and because they are central to water and energy supply, among other things.
We see this more as an accomplishment of the persistent advocacy efforts over the years to try and see contexts such as this addressed. However, what we do expect to see in the future is that we don't wait another 30 years for there to be another mountain chapter. We all have an engagement and responsibility to ensure mountains receive the space they deserve. It is a constant task of engaging in a policy process.
Water is an important topic of the cross-chapter paper on mountains. The number of people worldwide who depend directly or indirectly on water from mountain regions has risen from 0.6 billion in the 1960s to 2 billion in the last decade. At the same time, this water is decreasing over the long term as glaciers melt as a result of global warming. When will we run out of water?
Whether communities can expect to run out of water depends on water demand and access, too. It’s a combination of climate- and non-climate-related factors that determine that prospect. But our assessment concluded that water is certainly being affected in terms of its availability. Stronger, more erratic precipitation patterns along with increased runoff due to glacial melt is affecting peak water timing. In some areas, we are also seeing shifting water irrigation needs due to changes in agricultural practices. Many moving and inter-related factors need to be taken into consideration, but, overall, we are seeing changes that affect the net available amount of water given the dramatic cryosphere changes already experienced today.
And what about water as a source of energy?
One key issue we assessed was the risks associated with events like landslides, unstable mountain slopes, permafrost thaw, glacial retreat, and other cryosphere changes. This poses questions about how to use water for energy purposes, too. For example, what we’ve seen in some of the evidence we’ve assessed is that with increasing rates of glacier retreat comes an increase in the amount of sediment being released. This raises considerations for the longevity and maintenance costs required for infrastructure, such as turbines. The water available to generate power is just one of many factors that need to be considered when thinking about energy supply and infrastructure in the long term.
What do you think is realistic and feasible to address climate change impacts in mountain regions in general, and what are the limits?
We found that adaptation limits in mountains are certainly something to seriously consider. Ecosystem functioning is also affected by warming levels. Therefore, we can expect certain nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based adaptation options to work better under conditions associated with lower emission scenarios compared to higher emission scenarios. This is a key aspect for mountains given how quickly and sensitive they are to changes in temperature, especially at the rates we’ve seen.
Are there limits we’ve overpassed already?
One of the things the IPCC’s sixth assessment did quite well was to take a systems approach in examining how climate and non-climate factors interact and manifest in terms of impacts and associated risks. The causes associated with biodiversity loss, for example, are not just related to climate change, but also due to human-related activities. Our assessment has addressed these linkages and sends an important message to policymakers to consider all these other aspects. It showed that future climate change can generate profound changes and irreversible losses in mountain regions, including increased risk of mountain-top species extinctions where they are not able to move to higher elevations or other cooler locations, among other key risks. Therefore, whether certain limits or thresholds have already been surpassed is the subject of ongoing monitoring and research efforts. These efforts will be key in contributing to a more robust evidence base to ascertain these conclusions for mountains in future assessments.
The next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) is fast approaching. What impact could the latest IPCC report, particularly the Cross-Chapter Paper on ‘Mountains’, have at COP27?
One of the key priorities at this COP27 is the question of adaptation. We are expected to go into far more technical, practical, and financial detail about how to engage in adaptation. So, it’s not only about how well we’re tracking to limit warming to the 1.5°C target stipulated in the Paris Agreement but to also see the commitments made in financial terms from countries who have committed to support adaptation action. In our assessment, we substantiated and concluded that “the current pace, depth, and scope of adaptation are insufficient to address future risks in mountain regions, particularly at higher warming levels.” This is a key result that we hope to expand on and engage with stakeholders at COP27.
Another key priority for COP27 will be losses and damages to people and infrastructure associated with climate impacts. There’s no doubt there will be quite a lot of advocacy efforts and lobbying to make sure that loss/damage and climate justice become more prominent in these discussions.
What is your biggest hope for the future of mountains?
For me, the cross-chapter paper on mountains is a means to an end and part of a journey of a genuine, active dialogue between science and policy, and one which is gaining much-needed momentum. The content in this chapter serves as an opportunity to engage in what’s essential for safeguarding mountains and the ecosystems and people that depend on them, worldwide. I hope that the momentum isn’t lost!
Good scientific evidence is important to substantiate the content and help support decisions made on mountains. I hope that the next generation, especially early career researchers, see these types of global assessments as important opportunities, not just for their careers and professional development, but to give something so fundamental to our mountain regions and be part of the engagement that is needed in the science community, too. Mountains are unique socioecological systems. There is also good research and lessons learned from across disciplines that may not be mountain-specific, but they are very mountain relevant in the solution space we envision for the future of mountains under climate change.
*Heather Turnbach is MRI’s Communication Manager