Walking the Talk on Mountain Climate

COP28 made strong progress on highlands and islands. Here is what to expect in 2024 and beyond

Soot and dust particles from pollution that settle on the Khumbu Glacier makes it melt faster. Photo: Eelum Dixit

Accelerated warming in the Himalaya is a threat to the billion or so people living downstream, and ongoing ice loss could seriously affect the world’s freshwater supply and drive up sea levels.

Climate change and mountains is therefore an issue of critical importance not just for the Himalaya but also for the rest of the world. COP28 in Dubai was the first of climate conferences to explicitly recognise the issue in an outcome text.

This lays the ground for further progress this year, yet faster action on global emissions and climate finance remains key to safeguarding the future of these culturally diverse, highly vulnerable regions.

Rapid ice sheet melt poses the threat of catastrophic sea-level rise, with global mean sea levels already up 20cm. Ice sheet and glacier mass loss contributed 42% to global mean sea level rise between 2006 and 2018.

If mountains continue to lose ice, it’s not just local habitats and economies that will suffer, the resulting rising seas will also threaten small islands around the world.

Ice sheet loss is also accelerating climate change in a deadly loop. Thawing permafrost release planet-heating gases. 

Meanwhile particles of pollution that darken snow are altering the earth’s reflective quality (albedo). Areas that once bounced the sun’s radiation into space are starting to absorb that energy.

Read Also: The climate crisis is a water crisis in the Himalaya, Sonia Awale

As a result, warming intensifies, melting speeds up, and more dark areas are exposed in a continuous cycle. Think Machapuchre or even Everest. 

As the impacts from these changes are felt broadly around the world, this must unite climate-vulnerable nations spanning highlands to islands in a call for more urgent climate action. The 2030 climate targets set by countries lead to a 2.5°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. Such levels of warming would be devastating to the mountains and the world.

As countries prepare to announce new 2035 climate targets in their updated NDCs, these must align with the 1.5°C target. Countries should also ensure their ambitions are supported by stronger 2030 targets, creating a credible path to 2035.

COP28’s renewed call to update targets by the end of 2024 in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal was an essential lifeline for mountain countries.

The voice of mountainous regions rang through more strongly at COP28 than at any other climate talks. UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ decision to visit the Nepal Himalaya on his way to COP28 and witness first-hand the impact of climate change on mountains brought global attention to specific vulnerabilities of a region predicted to lose 36% of its glaciers by the end of the century even in a 1.5°C warming scenario.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal also convened a high-level event on mountains at COP28, which drew commitments and urgent calls for action. Experts and senior officials highlighted the critical need for immediate measures to reduce emissions, mobilise resources and implement suitable adaptation strategies in mountains.

mountain climate
A farmer in Dolpo harvests buckwheat in a neighbour’s field. Her own farm was washed away by a flood. Photo: Sonam Choekyi Lama

Inside the negotiation rooms, the coordination between three key climate leaders in particular stood out. Kyrgyz Republic (the only country to enshrine its net-zero target into law), Bhutan (the world’s only carbon-negative country), and Nepal (with exemplary initiatives on clean energy, forest conservation, and electric mobility) featured prominently in formal meetings to address upstream-downstream impacts, with support from downstream countries like Bangladesh.

The various interventions and meetings between these countries and the host UAE team, coupled with submissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), led to strong outcomes at the talks:

- Specific references to mountains were included in the Global Stocktake, the Summit’s main outcome text, for the first time. The text recognises the crucial role of ecosystems, including mountains, in addressing climate change, and encourages integrated solutions, including land-use management and conservation with a focus on mountains and one that offers economic, social and environmental benefits. The Stocktake also urges greater ambition and support for adaptation, emphasising the protection of ecosystems, including mountains. 

- There was an agreement to hold an expert dialogue on mountains at the UNFCCC’s midway climate talks in Bonn this June. This dialogue shouldn't be considered a one-time event, but rather a continuous platform for understanding how mountains connect with other areas, including small islands. It needs to fill the climate knowledge gap, specifically looking at data availability and sharing in mountainous regions due to their complex geography. It should also focus on the adaptation actions needed in the mountains, such as early warning systems for glacial lakes and rivers and the potential of hydroelectricity. 

- Mountains were featured in another formal decision text – the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA). The GGA outcome, which defined 2030 targets under the UAE Framework for Global Climate Resilience, underscored the need for increased ambition and support for adaptation with a focus on mountains. The unpacking of adaptation targets within the global goal was in general a noteworthy outcome of the talks. Elsewhere, the Nairobi Work Programme – an adaptation workstream under the UNFCCC – declared mountains, high-latitude areas and the cryosphere a priority theme for 2024. 

- The historic decision to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund and progress towards its capitalisation was a positive outcome for mountainous regions. Despite a record number of pledges made during COP28, climate finance commitments fall far short of what vulnerable countries need to deliver their climate ambitions. Finance will be a significant issue over the coming year, as the post-2025 climate finance target is decided in Baku at COP29.

Read Also: Climate change is a disaster in the Nepal Himalaya, Sonam Choekyi Lama

The significant acknowledgment of the mountain agenda at COP28, both in high-level events and formal decisions, is not a conclusion but a promising start to reinforce priorities of mountain nations and guide future processes.

Given the wide-reaching impact of mountains, it's crucial to unite progressive nations across regions to champion the call for a sustainable planet, ensuring that countries with varied geographies – mountainous, landlocked, or island – have a secure and healthy future.  

Manjeet Dhakal is the Head of LDC Support Team at Climate Analytics (CA) and Director for Climate Analytics South Asia.