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The Cross-Chapter Paper on “Mountains”, featured in IPCC's AR6 WGII Climate report, compiles observed and projected climate change impacts in mountains, key risks and observed adaptation responses.
The IPCC Working Group II report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (AR6 WGII) was released on Monday, 28 February 2022. The Summary for Policymakers was approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC, through a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting on 14 February, and the underlying report was accepted.
This report highlights the interdependence of climate, biodiversity, and people and integrates natural, social, and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments and emphasizes the urgency of immediate action to address climate risks. The report focuses on how we are currently adapting to climate changes, and what adaptation responses may be needed in the future.
The AR6 WGII report is significant to our work in the Hindu Kush Himalaya as it also contains a Cross-Chapter Paper on ‘Mountains’. The last time ‘mountains’ received a dedicated space in the IPCC’s Working Group reports was in the Second Assessment Report in 1995. Mountains were covered recently in 2019 in IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate with a Chapter on “High Mountain Areas”. This is an important step towards bringing mountain voices to a global platform.
The Cross-Chapter Paper on “Mountains” synthesizes key relevant content from the AR6 WGII report with a broader scope on the impacts and adaptation to climate change in mountain regions. It provides a wider assessment of the solutions space and consequences for sustainable development due to climate change in mountain regions and downstream areas.
Here, we unpack some of the key messages from the Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains and what it means for the HKH region.
While observed adaptation responses in mountain regions are contributing to reduced climate risks, the extent of their adaptation, in terms of time (speed), the scale of change (scope) and depth (degree to which a change is substantial), is low. Adaptation responses to climate-driven impacts in mountain regions vary significantly in terms of the goals and priorities, governance, modes of decision-making, and the extent of financial and other resources to implement them.
The most common adaptation options are implemented at the individual, household, or community scale. Formal or planned adaptation efforts, which are more institutionally driven, comprise a small proportion of the observed adaptation in mountain regions.
Observed adaptation responses in mountains are largely incremental and focus on early warning systems and the diversification of livelihood strategies in agriculture, pastoralism, and tourism. However, the feasibility and long-term effectiveness of these measures to address climate-related impacts and losses and damages is limited.
The incremental nature of most implemented adaptations will not be sufficient to reduce severe risk consequences. There is a need for robust and flexible adaptation measures to address risks. Eventually larger systemic transformation will be required for higher levels of warming in mountain regions.
The following figure depicts some of the options which offer practical and timely prospects to address risks before limits to adaptation are reached or exceeded for adaptation in mountain regions.
The impacts of human-induced climate change in mountain regions have increased in recent decades, with serious consequences for people and ecosystems.
Climate and cryosphere change have negatively affected the water cycle in the mountains. These changes have impacts on water availability for people and economies, contributing to increasing tensions or conflicts over water resources. The number of people largely or fully dependent on water from mountain regions has increased from around 600 million in the 1960s to around 2 billion in the past decade, while globally two-thirds of irrigated agriculture depends on essential runoff contributions from mountains.
Changes in climate over short distances in the mountains are reflected in large ecological gradients. With increasing average global temperature, the climatic conditions under which plants and animals can thrive are shifting to higher elevations. Declines and extinctions due to climate change have been projected in a range of montane plant and animal species, including rare, endemic, and threatened species and subspecies.
Climate and weather-related disasters in mountain regions have increased over the last three decades, affecting a growing number of people in the mountain regions and downstream. The risk of extreme events such as wildfires, droughts, floods, and landslips is increasing in a wide range of places as a result of climate change.
The frequency of disaster events shows an increasing trend in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, the Andes, and mountain regions in Africa. Severe damage and disruptions to people and infrastructure from floods are projected to sharply increase in South Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, and Central Asia with the risk already becoming very high between 2.0°C to 2.5°C global warming levels, driven mainly by river floods and an increase in the number of glacial lakes with high potential for outburst.
In some cases, climate-related hazards are leading to outmigration in mountain areas, leading to labour shortages in agriculture, animal husbandry and other productive sectors in mountain areas in Ghana, Tanzania, Thailand, and the HKH countries.
Increasing temperatures will continue to induce changes in mountain regions throughout the 21st Century, with expected negative consequences for cryosphere, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human wellbeing.
Climate change is projected to lead to profound changes and irreversible losses in mountain regions. Negative consequences are projected for ways of life and cultural identity. Intangible losses and the loss of cultural values will become increasingly widespread in mountain regions.
Losses are intangible because they characterize aspects that are difficult to quantify, i.e. loss of identity, self-reliance, rituals and traditions, and place attachment. The loss of intrinsic memories and culture brought on by changes in the world heritage landscapes and iconic sites is often mentioned across studies. Studies show that this risk is more prevalent in the Andes, the Hindu Kush Himalaya, and the Alps.
The risk of intangible losses and loss of cultural values is associated with the decline of ice and snow cover and temperature increase, as well as the increase in intangible harm from hazards such as floods and droughts.
Risks to cultural uses of water can become severe if there is permanent loss of aspects of communities’ cultures due to changes in water. This includes loss of areas of ice or snow with spiritual meanings, loss of culturally important places or access to such places, and loss of culturally important subsistence practices by Indigenous peoples. The risk is higher in the mountain regions where changes in the cryosphere have profound impacts.
The magnitude of these consequences is still uncertain. However, communities that have lost dominant environmental characteristics deeply associated with their cultural identity will be severely impacted. For example, changes in streamflow affect the availability of species for traditional hunting, which can negatively impact Indigenous communities. Therefore, traditional ways of life are threatened, and the resulting changes would be damaging rather than adaptive.
Due to climate change impacts on ecosystems, there is a wide range of threats to the lives, livelihoods, and culture of mountain people. Exposure and vulnerability exacerbate the adverse effects of climate impacts on livelihood and intertwine with power imbalances, gender, and other inequalities. Therefore, reducing the climate risks will depend on addressing the root causes of vulnerability, which include poverty, marginalization, and inequitable gender dynamics.