Message from the Director General

Even 1.5 degrees is too hot for our mountains

Dear all,

A key finding of the HKH Assessment Report is that 1.5 degrees is too hot for the Hindu Kush Himalaya, its ecosystems, and people. This is due to “elevation dependent warming”, a phenomena where warming is amplified with elevation, meaning that temperatures in high-mountains areas increase at a faster rate than environments at lower altitudes. This means that limiting warming to the 1.5 degrees agreed under the Paris Agreement will result in a 2 degree increase in the mountains. If current emission trends persist, temperatures could increase by over 5 degrees in the mountains.

What are the implications of this warming for our mountains? First and foremost, this will have direct consequences for our water systems, given the combined impact of melting glaciers, snow and permafrost and changing monsoon patterns. This will be a big hit for the 240 million people in the hills and mountains, for the over 1.65 billion people living downstream and ensuring water for food production, cities, industries and ecosystems.  

Second, our ecosystems and agricultural systems are quite sensitive to changes in temperature. In fact, we can already see some effects of increased warming. The range of many species in our ecosystems will shift to higher altitudes. Although such a shift could potentially have positive benefits for some high altitude areas (say apples growing at higher altitudes), it would require a lot of time and resources for communities to suddenly change their practices and ways of life to adapt to the new conditions. Moreover farmers are already struggling with floods, droughts and climatic uncertainties, as well as changing flowering patterns and new pests and diseases. Ecosystems will also change with the steep elevation gradients in mountains. Indeed, the recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report pointed to the loss of species in such a changing situation. Many mountain people are closely dependent on ecosystem services; for instance, they rely on forests for food, fuel for cooking and heating, and on springs for their water. The additional burden and stress for what is already a fragile environment could come at a great cost.

There is a lot to be concerned about, but I think it’s important to turn that concern towards action. In that regard, there is much excitement building for the month ahead in the sphere of climate change. First there is the Asia Pacific Climate Week to be held in Bangkok, where countries from the Asia Pacific region will come together to discuss a range of issues—from their respective Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, to adaptation plans, emerging green technologies, and planning for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) 25. This week-long Asia Pacific Climate Week will allow us to understand more about where we are as a region.

In September, the much awaited 2019 Climate Action Summit, called by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, will take place and provide impetus to mobilizing political and economic action at the highest level towards urgently addressing the climate crisis. Despite agreeing to do our best to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, the world is far off the mark in terms of what is required of us to reach this target. The highly anticipated IPCC’s “Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate”, or SROCC as it is commonly referred to, is due to be released on 25 September. This will be a first of its kind report which assesses physical processes and impacts of climate change on our ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems. It will also assess consequences for communities and options for climate adaptation and a more sustainable future. Some of our colleagues at ICIMOD have been an integral part of this important report and we are very proud of their contributions. We are also proud of our deepening engagement with the IPCC and very much enjoyed hosting, together with the Government of Nepal, the recent authors’ meeting for Working Group II of the IPCCC in Kathmandu.

Through these efforts, ICIMOD supports the amplification of mountain voices on the global stage. Although these voices have been on the margins of global discussions and deliberation in the past, I am confident that the HKH’s climate concerns will be well represented and discussed in this important month ahead. We will continue to do our part in all regional and global forums we are part of, and we hope you will join us too in driving home the extremely important message that even 1.5 degrees is too hot for our mountains.