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Melting Glaciers Help Spur a Message on Climate

Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse in Nepal face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods. Photo: jarikir/Flickr
Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse in Nepal face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods. Photo: jarikir/Flickr

(A version of this story was first posted on Glacier Hub on Oct. 6)

On Oct. 5, several small mountain countries with glaciers—Austria, Bolivia, and Nepal—undertook an important step in advancing global action on climate change. They helped the Paris Climate Agreement reach the threshold to enter into force and become legally binding. This agreement, the outcome of the 21st gathering of nations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate change, known as “COP21,” last November, is widely recognized as the most important international accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

For the agreement to enter into force, two conditions had to be met. The agreement had to be ratified by at least 55 participating parties, and these parties—nearly all of them nations—had to account in total for at least 55 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Paris Agreement Tracker, Oct. 6, 2016. Map: WRI
Paris Agreement Tracker, Oct. 6, 2016 (Source: WRI)

Both of these steps were completed on Oct. 5 through the ratification by 10 nations, including the three mentioned above, and one additional party, the European Union. This step closely follows the ratification by another small glacier country, New Zealand, on Oct. 4. According to the terms of the agreement, its entry into force will take place 30 days after the two conditions were met. That will occur on Nov. 4, at the next conference, COP22, in Marrakech, Morocco.

Though each country had taken many factors into consideration as it weighed the possibility of ratification, it is striking that some mentioned glaciers specifically. Nepal’s official statement says, “Nepal highlights that the Paris agreement is a living instrument meant for serious implementation, in tandem with [the] 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and hopes that its sincere implementation would help us adapt and mitigate the recurring problems such as landslides, floods, melting of glaciers, erratic and extreme weather patterns, and loss of biodiversity directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.”

The somber tone of this statement suggests a broad awareness of the threat of climate change in that country, where the ratification was the product of a unanimous vote in Nepal’s Parliament. Such moments of unity are rare in a country marked by fractious politics.

There was also strong agreement in New Zealand, where parliamentary votes are often highly contested. This point was noted by the country’s minister for climate change, Paula Bennett—a person of mixed indigenous Maori and European heritage—in her statement to the press: “I’d like to thank the select committee and my parliamentary colleagues for the cross-party support of New Zealand’s involvement in this significant agreement.” She emphasized the importance of the event. “New Zealand has helped make history today by ratifying the Paris agreement. … Although New Zealand contributes only a small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, our contribution counts.”

Earlier Actions on the Paris Agreement

These recent actions follow on the steps taken by other countries, which ratified the agreement earlier and brought it closer to the 55/55 threshold. Of particular importance were the small island states, who were among the first to ratify when it opened on April 22. China and the United States both agreed to ratify on Sept. 5, when the two heads of state, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, met in Hangzhou.

Signing of Peru’s instrument of ratification, Lima. Photo: MINAM
Signing of Peru’s instrument of ratification, Lima. Photo: MINAM

Peru, another glacier country, was also an early ratifier. It undertook this step on July 22, the first Latin American country to do so, in a major event attended by the president, Ollanta Humala, and the ministers of foreign relations, of the environment and of culture. The official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Relations linked the Paris agreement to COP20, held in Peru in 2014, where the Lima Call for Climate Action was signed.

Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM), explicitly linked his country’s attention to glaciers and its early ratification. In an email interview, he said, “Peru is one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change. With the creation of INAIGEM [in 2015], it showed its commitment to carry out concrete actions to combat climate change.” The ratification of the agreement was another such action, he added.

Other small glacier countries were important early ratifiers, including Norway on June 20 and Iceland on Sept. 21. These two countries may have taken this step earlier since they are not members of the European Union and could act in advance of other European countries. Iceland’s minister for foreign affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, described the ratification as an act of solidarity. “By ratifying the Paris agreement, Iceland has joined hands with a number of countries in paving the way for this immensely important global agreement to enter into force as soon as possible, ” she said. “Iceland stands shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s most ambitious states when it comes to addressing climate change.”

Several small glacier countries—Chile, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bhutan—are among the group of countries which have not yet signed the agreement.

Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, wrote to GlacierHub, “It is difficult to say when Kyrgyzstan will ratify the Paris agreement. The Kyrgyz government took a step forward by signing it and the ratification should follow as expected.” He noted “the Tian Shan, Kyrgyzstan’s main mountain range, have been dramatically losing glacier mass in the last 50 years. This process is not likely to stop.  Climate change is going to be one of the challenging tasks for the country to deal with in the decades ahead. Certainly, [the] Paris agreement is a positive step for the Central Asian nation because Kyrgyzstan is not capable to manage climate change impact on its own.”

Matthias Jurek, a program management officer of the UN Environment Programme working on mountain ecosystems, offered his views of the actions of the small glacier countries as a set. He warned against over-interpreting the lack of ratification by a few of them. In an interview with GlacierHub, he wrote, “I would be very cautious in making assumptions … about the background why certain (mountainous) countries have not yet deposited their instrument of ratification. The procedures of ratification processes … can be very time-consuming. I would not question the political will of these countries.”

Jurek added, “The mountain countries that have already deposited their instrument of ratification [serve] a good and positive signal to inspire others to do the same.”

It is striking to see how small island countries were among the first to ratify the agreement, and how small glacier countries were among the ones to bring it into force. The melting of glaciers in the latter contributes to the sea level rise that impacts the former. In both cases, small vulnerable countries played large roles in addressing problems which they face—and which the whole world faces as well.







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