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Mountains and Climate Change

The world’s mountains are home to about 800 million people and provide crucial ecosystem services for the entire globe, including freshwater for half of humankind. They are centres of biological diversity, important tourist destinations and key sources of raw materials. However, mountain regions are especially sensitive to the impacts of a changing climate, putting at risk many of the goods and services provided by mountains.A new publication launched at the 2014 COP 20 in Lima, Peru, by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and partners, aims to highlight the value and vulnerability of the world’s mountain regions, and to make recommendations for sustainable mountain development in the face of climate change. Mountains and Climate Change – A Global Concern provides a synthesis of current knowledge, together with a  number of case studies, and emphasises the role and importance of mountain goods and services for global sustainable development. The report features a chapter on mountain biodiversity by the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA), including case studies on Iranian mountain flora, climate-resilient pasture management in the Ethiopian Highlands, and protective forests in mountains.

The World’s mountain regions have warmed considerably over the last century, and while temperatures are expected to continue rising, projections of precipitation reveal a more differentiated pattern – some regions are expected to receive more rainfall, others less. The consequences for water availability reach far beyond mountain regions, with major development implications for irrigation, urbanisation, industrialisation and hydropower. Climate change is also likely to increase exposure to hazards, with extreme events such as avalanches and landslides becoming more common.

Exactly what the future holds for mountain biodiversity is site-specific and subject to debate, say the group of authors behind the report. The many climatic zones along gradients and varying topography found in mountains mean that they’re home to a high degree of biodiversity, including many endemic species – species that occur nowhere else. Mountains’ varying topography also provides microhabitats that may enable plant species that are adapted to the cold to find nearby ‘climatic refugia’ in a warming world. Managing mountain biodiversity is increasingly recognised as a global priority, but robust conservation efforts are needed to achieve the 2020 target of reducing biodiversity loss, say the authors. Climate change may create added pressure to achieve conservation goals, but it could also increase demand for intensive resource use in mountains if nearby lowland areas are subject to flooding and hotter temperatures. The report stresses the need for different strategies of land use and management in different mountain regions, and states that empowering mountain communities by encouraging leadership and use of local knowledge and by promoting platforms that enable learning and collective action can ensure more sustainable use of common resources and increase resilience to climate change.

Themes discussed in the report include water, glaciers and permafrost, hazards, biodiversity, food security and economy. The case studies included demonstrate that concrete adaptive action has been taken in many mountain areas of the world.

The 140-page publication, which is part of the sustainable development in mountain region series, concludes with a series of recommendations for sustainable mountain development in the face of climate change.