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The latest volume of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report focuses on climate change impacts on people and places, with urgent lessons takeaways for Nepal.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ transnational body of climate change scientists, policymakers, and experts, released the second part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) earlier this month.
The first volume of the landmark AR6 made significant waves in the global media earning its grim ‘Code Red’ nickname following the UN chief’s declaration of an unprecedented state of planetary emergency. Its scale of reporting and scientific scope was bigger than any previous assessment, and its language saw a sharp shift from the UN’s traditional conservative, diplomatic language to communicate the urgency of the crisis. In the short time since its August 2021 publication, volume one of the AR6 has become perhaps the world’s most talked-about climate change-related publication yet.
While the first volume of the AR6 covered the science of climate change, the new publication places the spotlight on climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation for people and places. The sprawling document of over 3,500 pages is organized into 18 chapters and seven cross-chapters of the Working Group II Report, assessing the impacts of the climate emergency on nature, humanity, and ecosystems around the world. It distills the knowledge obtained from decades of work done by generations of scientists into a single, easy-to-reference, concentrated resource. And like its predecessor, its contents are bleak, uncomfortable, and difficult to comprehend at scale.
“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” warned a group of the IPCC experts presenting the AR6 prior to its publication. With an average annual temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial measures now seemingly unavoidable in the coming decades, the AR6 starkly warns that many of the climate crisis’ worst impacts predicted a decade ago are now inevitable. Just like the first volume, the new volume minces no words in saying that the crisis is caused unequivocally by human activities.
A thorough rundown of the report’s dense findings is well beyond the scope of this article. Thankfully, the IPCC’s supplemental ‘Summary for Policymakers’ synthesis report helps in identifying the AR6’s overarching, actionable takeaways. Here are ones I felt most relevant to Nepal:
Climate change impacts are not equally distributed
The assessment says, “vulnerability… to climate change differs substantially among and within regions, driven by patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable land use, inequity, marginalization, and historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism and governance.”
In the Nepali context, scholars of climate justice and the intersectional social sciences of the environment believe that these disproportionate effects can manifest in two distinct ways. The first frames Nepal as a victim of the crisis, owing to its negligible current world carbon emissions proportion of an estimated 0.02% despite being one of the most climate change vulnerable countries in the world. The second observes the inordinate climate change effects faced by historically marginalized groups within the country, including women, indigenous groups, the landless, and the Dalit community.
The AR6 emphatically reaffirms that climate change impacts are disproportionate and supports the claim with stronger scientific backing than any UN-endorsed assessment before. In doing so, it lays the groundwork for Nepal’s lawmakers to consider and prioritize the social lens when determining the country’s environmental policies in the future.
Mountains are uniquely vulnerable
The IPCC has long identified mountains as a particularly vulnerable ecosystem. But never has this statement been stronger in practical application than in the second volume of the AR6 which, in focusing on adaptation measures, sheds light on the difficulty of adapting mountainous areas to a warming world.
Areas along the Hindu Kush Himalayan range have been on the frontlines of dramatic extreme weather events in the last few years. Disasters like the floods in Uttarakhand last year, the record dry-season wildfires in the Nepali hills, and the consistent urban battle with air pollution across South Asian cities serve as recent examples. The fact that an estimated 1.4 billion Asians rely directly on water flowing downstream from the rivers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya further adds to the unique mountainous vulnerabilities of Nepal. It is thus critically important for the country to improve its water security measures and contextualize climate change mitigation and adaptation policies to its diverse geographical regions.
Unplanned urbanization hinders effective adaptation
Medium and large population settlements in the Himalayan region are urbanizing slower than global averages for many reasons. This observed pattern can be a function of geography, economics, expansion-friendly policies, or any combination. Nonetheless, the Himalaya are still urbanizing at a growth rate that may be surprising to the uninitiated, with many areas predicted to develop into major urban centers in a decade or two. Predictably, as urban areas grow, increasing patterns of regional rural to urban migration flows can be expected as citizens flock to nearby cities in search of employment, amenities, and better livelihood opportunities.
This projected expansion in urban Himalayan populations and depletion in rural Himalayan populations creates several challenges in developing effective and resilient climate change adaptation systems in harsh terrains. Water scarcity is likely to become an even bigger challenge in high-altitude areas as water delivery systems, natural or artificial, are likely to become inequitable with increases in concentrated populations in specific areas. Social inequities also stand to become exacerbated, especially if urban residents are left to rely heavily on water imports, while the current challenges of utilities management and transportation are also likely to multiply procurement difficulties and socio-economically equitable access.
It’s not too late to act – but the window is closing
IPCC Working Group II co-chair Hans-Otto Portner has said, “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”
While both reports are as grim as they come, I personally felt like the new volume made more conscious room for suggestions for ways out of the worst outcomes. This was perhaps just a result of the subject matter of the second volume and its core assessment lens of adaptation. Whatever the reason may be, the new volume does leave its readers with a faint feeling of optimism.
The IPCC prescribes the following actions as the highest of its high priority climate change adaptation suggestions:
In addition to these excellent, locally relevant, and directly actionable suggestions, I believe Nepal could also benefit from taking concrete steps to developing robust, mutually supportive regional adaptation and cooperation strategies with fellow high vulnerability South Asian nations such as Bangladesh and the Maldives.
The third and final volume of the AR6 is scheduled to be published in a few weeks. It will complete the full assessment effort by reporting on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove what is already in the atmosphere and is contributing to climate change.
Shuvam Rizal Shuvam Rizal is a Kathmandu-based researcher. He is the founder of Rizolve Sustainable Solutions, Research Lead at Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal, and climate change columnist for The Record.
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