We’ve seen fire, and we’ve seen rain

Prolonged winter drought caused nationwide wildfires in Nepal, and this was followed by destructive floods at the start of the monsoon. Photos: NABIN LAMICHHANE/RSS (left), AMIT MACHAMASI/NEPALI TIMES (right)

After being ravaged by unprecedented nationwide wildfires and deadly monsoon floods this year, Nepal appears to be too busy dealing with disasters made worse by climate change to pay much attention to cutting emissions.

Back-to-back calamities this year have coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, and political paralysis in Kathmandu that has delayed vaccine procurement.

The disasters hit Nepal even as a leaked report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that the impact of the climate crisis on melting ice and extreme weather will intensify in the coming decades even if governments meeting in the UK for a climate summit in November agree on ambitious carbon cuts. 

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26 for short, is scheduled to be held in will be held in Glasgow from October 31 – November 12. World governments will try to agree on further action on the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The four goals for the summit are to secure global net-zero by mid-century and cap global average temperatures within 1.5°C by reducing carbon emissions drastically, and mobilising resources to help low-income countries deal with the impact.

“If we do not take this chance to keep 1.5°C alive, it will slip from our grasp ... every fraction of a degree makes a difference,” says Alok Sharma, president-designate for COP26, who visited Nepal earlier this year. “COP26 simply can’t be another talking shop.”

The 1.5°C target is especially important for the Himalaya which scientists say is warming between 0.3-0.7 °C faster than the global average. Even if the 1.5°C target is met, the Himalaya will lose one-third of its ice by the end of the century, scientists predict, and three-fourths if carbon emissions continue to rise at the present pace. 

The Himalaya is set to loose more of its ice than previously predicted, even if carbon emission cut targets are met. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

South Asian countries like Nepal and the Maldives, which suffer disproportionately from the impact of the climate emergency even though their per capita carbon emission are low, will be lobbying in Glasgow for resources to reduce risk from ice melting and sea-level rise.

In 2009, industrialised countries promised to raise $100 billion each year by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate impact. The actual funding fell well short of the target, and developing countries will be bringing up the issue strongly at COP26.

When Alok Sharma visited Nepal in February, he travelled to Mustang to see for himself the rapid shrinking of Himalayan glaciers. He had flown over some of the wildfires that were starting at the time, and the same trans-Himalayan districts are now being battered by deadly floods and landslides.

As of now, Nepal and its international development partners are working on a $7.4 billion Green Recovery Support package for the country to ‘build back greener’ following the pandemic. The package will support investments in clean energy, water, and climate change prevention, funding for sustainable forestry, and green job growth.

Nepal also recently made a national commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and will further its climate action plan in Glasgow with the country’s delegates representing the interests of the Himalayan region at the summit. The receding glaciers of the Himalaya do not just affect Nepal, but nearly 1 billion people downstream in India, south-east Asia and China. 

A warming atmosphere is believed to be causing more more unpredictable and extreme weather events in Nepal such as the prolonged winter drought that caused this year’s wildfires, and cloudbursts which unleashed floods and landslides this monsoon season.

At a virtual conference last month preparing for COP26, Nepali delegates raised concern that the vulnerability of mountain ecosystems was not getting enough priority in the summit agenda. They also urged more help for Himalayan countries to adapt to climate risk.

“Even if we are successful in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, it will be equivalent to a 1.8°C rise in the Himalaya, and we will be losing 36% snow by the end of the century,” Arun Bhatta of Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment told the meeting. 

After his visit to Nepal in February, Alok Sharma said he had seen for himself the impact of climate change on the mountains, including people being forced to abandon villages, and he pledged to amplify the voices of those most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

COP26 president Alok Sharma with the President Bidya Devi Bhandari in Kathmandu in February. Photo: THE PRESIDENT'S OFFICE

The leaked IPCC report painted an apocalyptic picture of ‘species extinction, epidemics, unsurvivable heat waves, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas’. Experts say the report is important because it paints a much more catastrophic picture of climate impact ahead of the Glasgow summit.

The IPCC is a grouping of the world's climate scientists, and its reports are supposed to be read by the world’s government so they can take timely action. Its leaked report says that even if the 1.5°C target is met, the climate crisis would ‘fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades’.

Ever since the Working Group 2 report was outed, the beginning of the northern summer has seen record-breaking summer temperatures in the Canadian northwest, unprecedented ice loss in the Arctic, and huge tundra fires in Siberia.

The report calls for drastic action, saying that just converting gasoline fuelled cars to electric vehicles will not prevent a climate meltdown.