June 2012

Rio+20: Sustainable Development in the Cryosphere
Rio de Janiero, June 16:

Here in Rio, in the physical heat as well as the heat of last-minute negotiations, it is hard to imagine the areas of ice and snow that make up the “cryosphere.” Yet when it comes to the challenge of sustainable development, few communities face greater challenges than the peoples living in alpine and polar areas such as the Himalayas, the Arctic, and Andes.

The rapidity of climate change in these regions – twice that of the global mean – provides a further stress to people already living on the margins of human existence, high in latitude or altitude or both. Vegetation is changing, weather and ice conditions have become unpredictable, and for those of us living in communities built on permafrost, the ground is quite literally shifting under our feet.

The focus for such communities in climate and development parlance has been “adaptation”: change ways of life, adapt to the new realities, as humans always have done. All too often, that means the focus on mitigation – preventing additional change – too quickly is lost. Adapt, rather than address the underlying problem: it sometimes feels as though the global community has given up on our alpine and polar communities already.

Yet there are measures and technologies that can support local adaptation and mitigation both, and lead to more sustainable long-term development at the same time. So-called short-lived climate pollutants – methane, ozone and black carbon – increasingly have gained attention from scientists and policy makers in this context globally.

For cryosphere regions, measures that decrease both black carbon and carbon dioxide are the most compelling, and perhaps chief among these is household burning of solid fuels – largely, coal and wood – for heating and cooking. UNEP has identified over a dozen other measures that would bring health and crop benefits, as well as slow near-term warming, in its Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Ozone: but few are as widespread in use, or as compelling in development and health impacts at the scale of individual households.

Women and children, and the most vulnerable communities stand to benefit the most. Stoves that use less wood can help maintain greater amounts of vegetation (and carbon) in high-altitude forests already under stress from rapid climate change. Both humans and ecosystems therefore stand to gain.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was formed with these sustainable development goals in mind. In addition to those cooking close to the glaciers of the Himalayas and Andes however, solid fuel also is widely and increasingly used in the countries around the Arctic. The Arctic Council has identified it as the one source of black carbon in the region projected to remain the same or increase in the coming two decades.

Many burn wood as a renewable resource, and wood is seen as an important part of the energy mix for a climate-friendly future. But with the climate imperative of the cryosphere, this resource needs to be used in a sustainable manner – which means taking into account the new science on black carbon, and finding technologies and methods of burning that keep “BC” levels low, for health and climate benefits both. That means pellets, or new technologies still under development.

As they are developed, such new technologies might also contribute to cutting black carbon from solid fuel burning from cookstoves. Exchange of knowledge can also go both ways – at a May meeting in Copenhagen, woodstoves experts were surprised to hear that the best cook stoves now under development have lower emissions of pollution than the even newer modern woodstoves in Nordic countries.

Much of the focus on black carbon has been on the large emissions from developing countries – but the countries around the Arctic have both the economic and technological know-how, and their own regional climate imperative to act quickly and decisively. These are regional actions with regional climate and development benefits that will directly impact the people taking them – a rarity for the climate problem where actions and their impacts often feel distant and obscure.

Woodstoves in the Arctic, cookstoves in the Himalayas and Andes — rarely has North-South cooperation been more compelling – and for the continued existence of the communities of the cryosphere, more essential to future generations.

Pam Pearson
Director, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, Sweden

By Amy Imdieke, Global Outreach Director, and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI.
Published Jun. 17, 2012      Updated Apr. 24, 2014 12:15 pm