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One Earth, many realities

Pema Gyamtsho

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Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

World Environment Day has been observed since 1974, and millions of people worldwide participate in the celebrations every year. Sweden is hosting WED this year. The WED 2022 also marks 50 years of the Stockholm Conference, which paved the way for international environmental agreements and the creation of national environment ministries and international environmental agencies. It also envisaged the poverty-environment nexus and set the stage for the Sustainable Development Goals that guide a lot of our work today.As we celebrate the 48th WED this year on the theme of “Only One Earth”, it reminds us of the need to retain perspective in a universe with countless galaxies. The Milky Way, our galaxy, also has countless planets – but only One Earth. It is home to around 7.5 billion people; this number is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100.

What is happening to this one Earth that we inhabit?

Currently, about 75% of our terrestrial ecosystems, 40% of the marine environment, and 50% of rivers and streams show signs of severe degradation caused by humans and climate change. Globally, an irreversible retreat of the ice sheet in Greenland and the western Antarctic, loss of permafrost, a shift in boreal forests into the tundra, dying coral reefs and Amazon rainforests, and shifting Indian and West African monsoons, are some of the tipping-points we are witnessing in our time. Rising global temperatures can push parts of the Earth system into irreversible changes, which are likely to increase GHG emissions manifold, raise sea levels by 5-7 m, amplify regional and global warning, cause shifts in ecosystems, biodiversity loss, severe drought in some areas and heavy rainfall in others. Such changes are also evident in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

We are living in the Anthropocene. According to the UN report, today humans extract more from the Earth than ever before, and about 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted every year. Global extraction and use of biomass, fossil fuels, minerals, and metals has increased sixfold since 1970. Urban area has doubled since 1992, and half of the tropical forests have been converted into farmland. More than half of the world’s oceans are exploited for fishing. Over 80% of global wastewater is discharged untreated, and some 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, affluents, toxic sludge, and other wastes are dumped directly into streams, rivers, and oceans every year. Excess nutrients that have travelled downstream into coastal ecosystems have created 400 hypoxic or dead zones worldwide. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold. Alien species have doubled in the last 50 years, threatening native and endemic species, ecosystem services, economies, and human health.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment report indicates that GHG emissions have doubled, since 1980, raising the average global temperature by at least 0.7 degrees. Changing temperature and precipitation has accelerated species losses, increased the spread of zoonotic diseases, and mass mortality of plants and animals, resulting in climate-driven extinctions, ecosystem restructuring, increases in wildfires, and declines in essential ecosystem services. Human-induced climate change has increased socioecological vulnerabilities and hazard risks, including floods, droughts, wildfires, terrestrial and marine heatwaves, and cyclones. Vulnerable people, human systems, and climate-sensitive species and ecosystems are at a risk higher than ever before.

Locating mountains in this rapidly changing world

Mountains, covering approximately 24 per cent (~31.74 million km2) of the Earth’s surface, are areas of rich cultural and biological diversity, and provide an array of vital goods and services to people living in the mountains and downstream. The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), hosting the world’s highest peaks, unique cultures, rich and diverse flora and fauna, vast ice and snow reserves, and permafrost, is a global treasure trove. It feeds Asia’s ten major rivers that sustain some of world’s most populated regions and supports an economy worth $ 4.0 trillion every year.

Like other mountainous regions of the world, the HKH has been experiencing unprecedented and extensive change over the last two decades, and the impacts are projected to worsen with time. Even a 1.5°C rise is too hot for the HKH because of elevation dependent warming, increasing the risk of species extinction and extreme events. Dust and black carbon settling on Himalayan glaciers will accelerate melting, change rainfall patterns, and impact agriculture, water and sanitation, hydropower, and fisheries with far-reaching consequences for human and environmental health. With increasing emissions from agricultural fields, brick kilns, wildfires, and automobiles, the HKH and its adjoining plains are fast becoming one of the most polluted regions in the world.

Mountain communities in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of widespread poverty, high dependence on natural resources for livelihoods, and higher exposure to climate risks.  Mountain ecosystems, with their many threatened and endemic species, are particularly sensitive to climate impacts and are being affected at a faster rate than other terrestrial habitats.

Reflecting our commitments and actions

On this day, we need to think over the successes and failures of global environmental policy and action, and our collective efforts to protect this One Earth. The current pace, breadth, and depth of mitigation and adaptation responses are no longer effective for addressing present and emerging risks. And some regions, like the mountains, that are on the frontlines of climate change, need special attention. Without proactive policies and greater support, climate and environmental change will only reinforce and amplify current and future disparities and vulnerabilities within across countries and regions.

Collective climate action is critical. Individual actions, commitments, and investments are inadequate for the scale of the crisis that we are faced with. For the HKH region, we developed the HKH Call to Action as a roadmap to harness the collective power of eight countries for the HKH. But we need global support to scale up climate smart investment in the six mountain-specific priorities outlined in the Call to Action.

I hope this year’s WED celebrations will lead to critical reflections on 50 years of the Stockholm Conference and to greater multilateral cooperation and accelerated climate action, with a special focus on the most vulnerable regions and communities. At ICIMOD, we remain committed to the most vulnerable mountain communities of the HKH.

Happy World Environment Day 2022!

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