The Sagarmatha National Sambaad held this week was a dress rehearsal for a bigger international event slated for April, Nepal’s own version of Davos. Fittingly, the theme for the national gathering was ‘Climate Change, Mountains and the Future of Humanity’.
The title may be grandiose, but that is because at the rate of warming, mass extinction is an imminent threat. Thresholds agreed on in Paris in 2015, and forecasts in last year’s Himalayan Assessment brought out by ICIMOD may have to be revised because the rate of polar ice melt predicted for 2050 is already beginning to happen.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 300 parts per million (ppm) at the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1820 to 415ppm today. Cascade effects like the loss of albedo as Arctic ice melts, the undermining of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf by warm ocean currents, methane from melting permafrost in Siberia means global warming is not linear.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the mass burning of fossil fuels in the past 200 years have warmed the atmosphere by 1.3oC. Another 1.5oC increase will happen in the next 30 years. And due to a phenomenon called ‘elevation dependent warming’, the Himalayan mountains are expected to warm 0.3oC faster than the rest of the world.
Himalayan ice will be nearly gone during this century. The impact on biodiversity, weather, stability of slopes, society, economics and ultimately politics, will be catastrophic. There is just not enough time to adapt.
Which is why it is important for Nepal to take the lead in drawing global attention to the unique crisis faced by the Himalaya, for this does not just affect us but 1.2 billion people living downstream from Asia’s water towers.
While global CO2 cutbacks are put on fast-forward, Nepal and other countries in the region need to quickly come up with ways to reduce risk, and to manage the severe disruptions in natural systems that are sure to gain pace in the coming decades.
Even without the climate crisis, Nepal faces enormous environmental challenges. Our rivers are ravaged by sand mining, mountains are mauled by excavators, infrastructure is undercutting gains in forestry. Air pollution in urban areas exceed accepted international standards all year round, waste management is a mess, plastic litters the countryside.
The climate emergency is happening in parallel with an unprecedented transformation in all spheres of life. Nepal used to be known as a predominantly rural, agriculture-based society. Not anymore.