A Biden presidency, climate and the Himalaya

The south face of Mt Gauri Shankar (7,134m) on the border between Nepal and China is bare rock, and shows how dramatically the snowline has receded, and the glaciers have shrunk. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

With just 4% of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for over 15% of annual global carbon emissions. What America does or does not do will affect how fast the Himalayan ice cap will melt during this century.

Which is why Joe Biden’s win in the US election is such a big deal for the global environment, including the Himalaya. Biden has announced he will reverse Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which ironically came into effect on 4 November, the day after the US vote.

The Himalayan arc from Burma to Afghanistan is the biggest storehouse of fresh water after the two polar regions, and it is warming between 0.3-0.7°C faster than the global average. The loss of Himalayan ice would have devastating consequences for 1.6 billion people living in the mountains, and in downstream countries.

In just 2 years, a Nepal peak becomes snowless, Basanta Pratap Singh

“Reversing these warming trends will begin with Biden’s commitment to re-joining the Paris agreement, as the US is not only one of the world’s greatest climate offenders but also one of its best potential leaders and sources of needed funding,” said Alton C Byers of the University of Colorado, who has studied Himalayan glaciers for the past 30 years.

The Paris Agreement aims to cap the global temperature rise in this century ‘well below’ 2°C by reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy technologies, and protecting forests and biodiversity.

But rejoining the Paris accord will be the easy part. Much harder for the Biden presidency will be overcoming domestic opposition to cutting emissions at home, push rapid transition to clean energy, and funding global carbon reduction initiatives.

The Biden administration may be more supportive of projects like USAID efforts in the past that have helped Nepal become a global leader in glacial lake risk reduction, adaptation, and climate mitigation measures.

“These projects are in need of resurrection, along with the development of renewable energy technologies, sustainable tourism, and other opportunities as part of Nepal’s post-coronavirus recovery plans,” Byers added in an email interview with Nepali Times.

Joe Biden ran on a bold climate action platform, unveiling a $2 trillion investment plan with a promise to clean up the energy sector by 2035, boost renewables and create high paying green jobs.

The Biden-Harris win has raised hopes among environmentalists around the world, but the world has a lot of catching up to do to reverse Trump’s systematic effort over the past four years to undermine climate mitigation measures. The new administration in January will also likely face a serious opposition from a possible Republican-led Senate as it seeks to transition America off fossil fuels.

"To regain credibility on climate, the US now has to show the world that it is on a path to net zero emissions by 2050, only then can America press other high-emitting countries to act with the urgency required by the climate crisis," added Adam Stern, a California-based climate leader, formerly with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"If Biden can restore the role of science in determining US climate policy, he may also be able to focus world attention on regions like the Himalaya that are already experiencing extreme climate changes,” said Stern, who has written about energy use in Nepal’s Khumbu region.

International climate policies will have a lasting impact on the Himalaya where measurements of ice mass, temperature rise, glacial shrinking and receding snowlines have been more serious than previous estimates.

However, experts say that Nepal also has to do its bit to accelerate its shift to solar and hydropower in generating electricity for transport and household use. And since nearly a quarter of melting of Himalayan glaciers is attributed to the deposition of soot and dust on the snow, transboundary collaboration in pollution control is a must.

Since October, for example, northern India has been blanketed by thick smoke from crop residue burning, and this black carbon is being blown up to the snows by prevailing westerlies. And as winter sets in, industrial and vehicular pollution will be trapped by inversion across the Indo-Ganetic plains and ultimately reduce the reflectivity of Himalayan ice cover.

Air pollution was already decreasing the average lifespan of tens of millions of people in north India by 3.7 years. It killed 42,100 people in Nepal last year alone, studies show, and this winter that risk for patients with respiratory issues is combined with Covid-19 complications.

The causes and solutions of air pollution and climate change are intricately interconnected, both largely affected by human activities over time and space. In fact, short-lived pollutants like black carbon, ozone and other gases exacerbate global warming.

“Dark coloured pollutants such as soot particles from diesel and forest fires absorb sunlight and warm up the air at the altitude at which they are located,” explained atmospheric scientist Arnico Panday. “If they warm the air near snow or ice surfaces they can contribute to melting. And when dark particles, including windblown desert dust, settle on snowfields or glaciers they can darken the surfaces and melt the snow and ice. Certain air pollutants therefore accelerate glacier melt in the Himalaya.”

Even though a Biden presidency has given some hope for climate activists in the Himalaya, they point out that China has overtaken the United States, responsible for 28% of total carbon emissions in 2018. Carbon emissions in China and India are growing at a faster rate than in North America, and the two countries already contribute 37% of global greenhouse gases annually.

So, while a greener America will help, the real action to slow Himalayan melting will have to come from the immediate region. The good news is there are already proven clean technologies for brick kilns, cement industries, solar and hydro here in Nepal and in South Asia. Governments need to incentivise these, provide subsidies, and investors need to back them up.

“Air pollution has never made it to the priority of our politicians, their mentality of focusing on short-terms gains like tax revenue over long-term gains can’t be changed,” says Manjeet Dhakal, adviser to the Least Developed Countries support group at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

He adds: “We must deploy our own young population to lobby and take part in climate action. What happens in the United States, whether international funds will be available will only help temporarily. We must cut emissions at source, educate our own people about the cost of the climate crisis, and provide alternatives.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.