FEATURE STORY

Protecting Snow and Ice Critical for Development, Climate

November 3, 2013

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new scientific report shows that by moving rapidly to reduce pollutants such as methane and black carbon, we could slow warming in critical snow and ice-covered regions while benefitting human welfare.
  • Continued melting in snow and ice-covered regions will rise sea levels further, threaten water resources, and release more carbon into the atmosphere.
  • The report looks at 14 measures that could curb black carbon and methane emissions.

Each year, the snow line on the Himalayan and Andean mountain slopes continues to creep up, exposing brown dirt where 50 years ago there was always snow. Communities downstream from those majestic peaks now watch as big lakes formed by melting glaciers cause catastrophic floods in some areas, while lack of snow melt lead to crippling drought in others.

At the same time, 4 million people perish each year from the smoke they inhale from open-fire cooking – soot that also rises into the atmosphere and speeds up the melting of ice and snow.

Pollution from open fires and diesel engines (known as black carbon), and methane gas released from livestock, landfills and mining operations; are some of the pollutants scientists say must quickly be curtailed to protect human welfare and tackle climate change.

A new scientific report shows that by moving rapidly to reduce such short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP), we could slow the warming in critical snow and ice-covered regions with multiple benefits as a result.

“An issue of global concern”

Scientists call snow-capped mountain tops, brilliant blue glaciers, regions with permafrost and other perpetually frozen parts of Earth the “cryosphere.” Such areas feed major rivers that provide freshwater for hundreds of millions of people, trap harmful greenhouse gases, and keep sea levels where they should be.

The new report, On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives, produced by the Bank and the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI), issues dire warnings.

A continued warming in the cryosphere could cause a rise in sea levels that would affect more than 100 million people globally. It would also threaten water resources on which 1.5 billion people just in the Himalayan region depend, and a loss of frozen soil (permafrost) that that would then release as much as 30 percent more carbon into the atmosphere by 2100.

“The cryosphere is changing fast as a result of climate change and if warming continues unabated, the risks to human societies and sensitive ecosystems rise dramatically,” said ICCI Director Pam Pearson. “It makes slowing cryosphere warming an issue of global concern.”

Open Quotes

This report is an important contribution to the World Bank's work on development and climate. It clearly identifies the risks to the poorest and most vulnerable, but also the climate benefits of early, scalable action irrespective of global agreements. Close Quotes

Rachel Kyte
Vice President for Sustainable Development, The World Bank

Buying time for bigger challenges

By quickly taking steps to curb emissions from cookstoves, forest burning, fossil fuel extraction and diesel transport countries could help preserve the cryosphere while at same time saving the lives and health of millions. The report looks at 14 measures (initially proposed in a 2011 scientific assessment) that could get the job done – while cautioning that long-term efforts to curb emissions of carbon-dioxide, the biggest contributor to global warming, must also be scaled up.

“Reductions in short-lived climate pollutants cannot be made in isolation from efforts to reduce other greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide,” said Sameer Akbar, a senior environmental specialist at the World Bank and a co-author of the report. “But black carbon and methane reductions can slow the warming impact in the near-term, including in regions covered with snow and ice. That would buy us some much-needed time to help communities adapt to the changing climate.”

  • By ramping up production and adoption of just four non-polluting cookstove designs, for example, the world could save 1 million human lives annually, with the biggest benefits seen in South Asia.
  • Improved wood and coal heating stoves could save another 230,000 lives, while a 50-percent drop in open field and forest burning could result in 190,000 fewer deaths every year. Those benefits would be seen mainly in Europe and Central Asia.
  • Reductions in emissions from diesel transport and equipment, meanwhile, could result in more than 16 million tons of additional yield in crops such as rice, soy and wheat, especially in Southeast Asia. The number of averted premature deaths: 340,000.

"This report is an important contribution to the World Bank's work on development and climate," said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development.  "It clearly identifies the risks to the poorest and most vulnerable, but also the climate benefits of early, scalable action irrespective of global agreements."

World Bank Steps Up Efforts to Reduce Pollutants

The On Thin Ice report comes on the heels of another recent World Bank report that looked at ways in which the Bank can more effectively address short-lived climate pollutants through its projects. That report noted that between 2007 and 2012, 7.7 percent of World Bank commitments, about $18 billion, were spent on activities that could potentially reduce SLCP emissions.   

Going forward, despite challenges of implementation around cost, behavior and technology, the goal is to transform as much of the Bank’s portfolio as possible into activities that  directly help reduce the release of SLCP into the atmosphere.