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Peaks in the Andes Mountains in Venezuela

Peak focus: addressing the increasing impacts of climate change on mountains

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Peak focus: addressing the increasing impacts of climate change on mountains

The last remaining glacier in the Andes of Venezuela is gone. Metals released from melting permafrost across the Brooks Range of Alaska are contaminating once clear rivers, turning them orange. Growing glacial lakes pose a risk of outburst flooding, threatening more than 10 million people living in the world’s highest reaches.    As such sobering illustrations accrue, the toll of climate change on mountain regions is receiving long overdue climate policy attention. New insights are emerging about how to help mountain regions adapt – the focus of the Adaptation at Altitude program, an international consortium in which SEI is a partner.

Karen Brandon, Rosie Witton, Kate Williamson / Published on 29 May 2024

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has evocatively said, “The mountains are issuing a distress call.” With these regions revealing some of the clearest indications of climate change, global climate policy agendas are finally beginning to take notice. Late last year, for example, the UN Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai gave mountain regions new attention, specifically underlining their importance in both the global stocktake of progress to achieve the Paris Agreement, and the Framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation. A COP28 agreement called for an expert dialogue on mountains and climate change – an event that will take place next week at the Bonn Climate Change Conference of Subsidiary Bodies.

For the past four years, SEI has been working with the Adaptation at Altitude (A@A) programme, an international partnership that seeks to boost the resilience and adaptive capacity of mountain communities and ecosystems worldwide. In this Q&A, two project participants – SEI Research Associate Kate Williamson and SEI Research Fellow Rosie Witton – outline key issues facing mountain regions, the impacts for people at all altitudes, and the efforts to find innovative ways for these regions to boost their resilience.

Why are mountains key for climate change adaptation efforts?

Mountain regions cover about one quarter of the Earth’s land surface. They are home to more than 1 billion people – and the source of 25% of terrestrial biodiversity and 60% of all biosphere reserves. Moreover, they supply freshwater for lowland irrigation and domestic use for half of the global population.

Some of the clearest indications of climate change – rising temperatures, melting glaciers and changing precipitation patterns – are taking place in mountains. These impacts disrupt water flows and affect ecosystems, creating and worsening natural hazards and threatening livelihoods and communities, not just in mountains but also downstream.

In the mountains, ambient temperatures are rising faster than the global average – in some cases more than three times the global average. Because climate impacts are often more profound in mountains, mountain livelihoods are particularly sensitive to climate change. The reliance of rural mountain communities on their local environment and the ecosystem services it provides makes them highly vulnerable to the impacts.

This makes the mountains a key for climate change adaptation efforts globally.

What are the key challenges that these regions face?

The key challenges could be summed up in a single phrase: relentless change. Temperatures and environmental conditions are likely to continue to change, according to the chapter on mountains in the Sixth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change. Moreover, the current pace, depth and scope of adaptation measures being implemented in mountain regions are not enough to address the future risks in mountain regions.

The related challenges cross national boarders, economies and societies, as an A@A brief on transboundary risks highlights. For example, the Hindu Kush Himalaya region spans eight countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan), twelve major river basins, and the communities where nearly two billion people live and work. Cooperation at regional and national levels is needed to develop an integrated approach to find transboundary solutions that can address the risks these regions face.

What are the promising innovations that have been put in place or are emerging to help mountain regions adapt to climate change?

The good news is that innovative solutions exist to address many of these challenges. Many of these have been documented by and for mountain communities across the globe. The Adaptation at Altitude Solutions Portal showcases more than 90 tried-and-tested technologies, approaches and/or processes, covering a range of impacts, sectors, scales and ecosystem types. The goal is to provide practical information on areas – such as finance, planning, implementation, outlook and scalability – in an easily accessible format to inspire and, where appropriate, encourage replication of solutions.

We have put together a list of innovations taking place in mountain regions that address seven key areas set out in the Framework Convention for Climate Change. These are listed in the box below.

What steps can and should be taken at the upcoming meetings in Bonn – or through other processes – to help mountainous regions address the challenges they face now and those they are likely to confront? What could be done to begin to move things in the right direction?

Next week’s expert dialogue on mountains and climate change in Bonn provides a much-needed space to address and share knowledge on key challenges facing mountainous regions. At the same time, countries are now drafting and updating their national adaptation plans (NAPs) and approaching the deadline for the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which outline climate action plans for implementation for the next decade. The focus now needs to turn to translating lessons learned on mountains into policy and practice.

To foster inter-regional, transboundary, and systemic adaptation, parliamentarians and policymakers should focus on five key actions:

  • Institutionalizing cooperation – The creation of legally binding, regional conventions such as the Alpine Convention can facilitate cross-border knowledge exchange and decision-making processes. Such conventions can also increase the political impact of decisions, as argued in this A@A Mountains Connect brief. Increasing cooperation through knowledge exchange and sharing information is also vital.
  • Prioritizing inter-sectoral solutions and projects – Projects that address multiple risks and sectors are considered to be more robust than those with a narrow focus. A recent systematic review of national adaptation plans from 46 developing countries noted that most fail to address tourism, biodiversity, energy,  infrastructure and transport; instead most plans focus on water management, natural hazards and agriculture. It is also crucial for policymakers to take a more holistic approach, recognizing the interconnectedness and interdependencies between different sectors and economies, and maximizing opportunities for synergies and co-benefits. Parliamentarians can explore actions across a range of intersecting issues from biodiversity conservation to migration and displacement in this A@A and Inter-Parliamentary Union issue brief.
  • Filling data and information gaps – Ongoing research and data acquisition are required to better understand the impacts of climate change in mountain regions and to inform effective adaptation strategies. Existing, global inventories such as GEO Mountains  and regional monitoring networks such as the ROSA network should be expanded and better utilized to fill information gaps and promote coordination and connectivity between countries’ plans and projects. Platforms such as A@A’s own Solutions Portal and the weADAPT Mountains Theme support sharing information worldwide.
  • Engaging local and Indigenous communities – Recognizing the value of local and Indigenous knowledge can lead to more sustainable adaptation approaches. Parliamentarians, policymakers, and researchers should engage with local and Indigenous communities in both the planning and implementation of adaptation actions and view them as agents of change. This A@A brief offers insights into how collaborating with Indigenous actors and harnessing their knowledge has supported climate change adaptation in mountain regions.
  • Increasing the availability of funding for regional projects – Understanding and expanding available funding mechanisms and distributions are vital to support climate change adaptation in mountain regions. During the period from 2011 to 2019, approximately 6% of all bilaterally or multilaterally funded adaptation projects were focused on mountain regions. As this A@A public funding brief underscores, this is just a tiny fraction of the money needed.

Innovations in seven key areas that can boost climate change adaptation in mountains

The  Framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation, which seeks to guide adaptation efforts worldwide and boost adaptation support for vulnerable countries, sets out seven thematic areas to  inform adaptation action going forward. The Adaptation at Altitude Solutions Portal offers examples of innovations that can provide inspiration to address these key issues:

Water – In Venezuela, local communities and organizations have collaborated to conserve and restore paramos (native wetland) ecosystems and improve the regulation and supply of water in the face of climate change. Key to these adaptation efforts’ success was local actors’ involvement in the planning, design, analysis, implementation, and monitoring through processes such as participatory mapping.

Food and agriculture – In the eastern Himalayan region of Nepal, cardamom farmers are adopting climate- resilient farming practices; pursuing additional sources of income through value-added, cardamom-based products; and diversifying their crops to sustain production and income in the face of drought, increased pest infestation, and erratic rain and snowfall.

Health – In Pakistan, a community-based, flood-warning system has been implemented to provide earlier warnings to help mitigate the risk of damage to life and property. Pilot projects have reduced psychological stress among vulnerable communities by letting them prepare for and act against climate-induced floods.

Ecosystems and biodiversity – In Peru, community- and ecosystem-based adaptation measures were implemented with local stakeholders to restore the freshwater ecosystems degraded by glacial melt. The project has protected 143 hectares of wetland, created 200 new lakes, and restored mountain meadows and wildlife watering holes. These efforts benefited biodiversity and also reduced the risk of landslides and flash floods for more than 70,000 people living downstream.

Infrastructure – In Tajikistan, efforts are being undertaken to strengthen critical infrastructure against natural hazards by improving contingency planning and developing emergency response strategies.

Poverty and livelihoods – In the Eastern Arc Mountains in south-central Tanzania, beekeeping is being adopted to provide an alternative source of income and foster nature conservation in a region in which drought and altered growing seasons have reduced agricultural productivity.

Cultural heritage –  In the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus in Azerbaijan, a traditional irrigation and drinking water “Khariz” system has been rehabilitated to improve access to water. This community-driven approach, centred around local knowledge, can reduce the burden placed on women who are traditionally responsible for collecting water and build resilience against drought.

Kate Williamson
Kate Williamson

Research Associate

SEI Oxford

Rosie Witton
Rosie Witton

Research Fellow

SEI Oxford

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