October 2013

Message from the Cryosphere

The On Thin Ice report, co-produced by ICCI and the World Bank, is a message of caution, and of hope.

Caution because rapid changes in the earth’s regions of snow and ice – the “cryosphere” – daily increase the risk of changes to our global environment: changes not seen in the span of human existence.  Hope, because the tools to decrease that risk are available now and would improve the lives and futures of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

First the caution: the cryosphere is changing fast as a result of climate change, it is changing today, and those changes bring increased risk to ecosystems and human societies.  On Thin Ice documents how that pattern is repeated throughout the cryosphere, whether the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Himalayan “Third Pole,” or the Andes:  temperatures rising at twice or more the global average, glaciers receding, ice sheets showing signs of instability, permafrost thawing.  The cryosphere is on an accelerated warming path, and some of those changes may drive global climate change faster and further than we are currently prepared to handle.  If warming continues unabated, the risks from continuing sea-level rise, flooding, and water resource disruption rise dramatically.  So too will the risk of large CO2 and methane releases from permafrost, potentially eclipsing global efforts to reduce carbon pollution.  The window to slow some of these processes may be closing rapidly.

Yet this report also carries hope, because a suite of air pollution management tools are available that can slow these cryosphere changes and at the same time bring economic benefits: improved health, higher crop yields, and greater access to energy.  Anti-pollution measures aimed at sources such as cookstoves; coal and wood heating stoves; diesel; alternatives to crop burning; and capture of biogas from landfills offer direct benefits to those communities making them happen, and they are eminently achievable.  Though global decreases in CO2 cannot and should not be replaced, many communities have it in their power to at least slow snow and glacier loss nearby.  The tools discussed in this report reflect a truly global solution, with actions available for both the developed and developing world: improved woodstoves for heating in Scandinavia and improved stoves for cooking in Nepal both help preserve nearby snow and ice.

The On Thin Ice modeling shows a special need to focus more urgently on cookstove pollution.  Introduction of advanced cookstoves proved the one measure with recognizable climate benefits in every cryosphere region of the world, including Antarctica.  The human costs of inaction are enormous: four million people die annually from cookstove pollution, greater than the annual toll of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.  It is time to consider a commensurate push to replace these polluting, health-damaging stoves using the same tools that turned around the global AIDS crisis — coordinated public/private efforts, strict monitoring and evaluation, and nimble programs adapted to local conditions.

The modeling also demonstrates how methane and black carbon emissions associated with the “front end” of fossil fuel extraction warm the earth, alongside the “tailpipe” CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, underscoring the need for transition to low-carbon economies in the near future.

The result is an imperative for both protecting the cryosphere and supporting human development.  Implementing these air quality measures sooner rather than later will improve the quality of life for many millions of people each year, while decreasing risks from sea-level rise and other impacts of rapid cryosphere change.  Yet it cannot be overemphasized that, to realize these gains, the air quality actions modeled in this study must be accompanied by action on CO2.

This then is the cryosphere’s message of caution and hope — the new cryosphere and development imperative.

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