Is there anything more awe-inspiring than a mountain? It is no surprise that they are spaces of such spiritual significance for many – hosting ancient monasteries and sparking lore that stretches back for centuries. When we stand at the foot of these monuments to the Earth’s youth – be it Jengish Chokusu in the Krgyz Republic or Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – we feel the scale and glory of nature. We feel small.
We are small. But small creatures – when they are many, as we are – can do great damage. And we are damaging mountain ecosystems through the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.
Mountain ecosystems are hugely important – and not just to the people who live in them. Mountain regions host 25 out of 34 of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. They are a freshwater resource to half of humanity – as in Kyrgyzstan, where over 8,000 glaciers feed freshwater reserves and major rivers in the region.
They provide other ecosystem services, such as climate regulation and soil conservation. One report estimates the transboundary Mount Elgon in Uganda and Kenya provides ecosystem goods and services worth over USD 900 million USD per year.
This is what we risk losing. This is what we are losing. Climate change is disrupting micro-climates and threatening endemic mountain species such as the iconic snow leopard in Kyrgzystan. In Kenya, UNEP’s host country, just 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered Mount Kenya’s peaks a century ago remain. Pastoralists who rely on Mount Kenya’s glaciers for water are already facing conflicts over this precious resource. In a 1.5 degrees Celsius world, all remaining glaciers in Africa will disappear.
Waste is just as big a problem: microplastics have been found just below the summit of Mountain Everest, while one survey found that two-thirds of mountaineers come across litter and waste when they clamber the Earth’s ladders to skies.
But we can undo what we have done. Please allow me to briefly run down four areas in which we can make an impact.
One, ensure adequate nature-positive investment to back mountain ecosystem regeneration.
Fulfilling the Glasgow Pledge on forest conservation and restoration will help, as forests cover more than 40 per cent of global mountain area. Fully financing commitments to restore one billion hectares of land will really get us moving. Scaling-up private investments for nature-based solutions in mountain countries will be critical to this task – as will Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), which remains a useful element of international climate commitments and national climate strategies.
Two, ensure that the five year-action plan and its implementation emerging from the International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development is guided by science.
Science and innovation are key to the success of the new Global Biodiversity Framework, the Paris Agreement, the global treay to end palstics pollution that countries are beginning negotiations on, and every other international deal that affects mountain ecosystems. We need to know what is happening, why it is happening and how to stop it. At UNEP, we work to provide science for policy integration and swift action in collaboration with other alliances and networks such as the Mountain Partnership.
Three, boost regional coordination.
Mountain ecosystems stretch across borders and can provide ecosystem services to many countries. The more regional cooperation and transboundary governance, the better for long-term adaptation actions and multiple co-benefits. UNEP is ready to lend its vast experience – such as through hosting the Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention - in this area to regional governance building.
Four, connect policy agendas and actions for mountains.
Nature-based solutions can help to fulfil the goals across the Rio conventions on climate, biodiversity and land, so we need common approaches. Like putting nature-based solutions in climate commitments. Like reaching an ambitious, society-wide agreement on the Global Biodiversity Framework. Like working closely with the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that is hammering out a deal to end plastic pollution – because we know that plastics are finding their way into mountains.
We small creatures are in danger of becoming giant killers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can use our strength in numbers, our ability to coordinate and cooperate, to protect mountain ecosystems. Let’s use the momentum of the International Year of Mountains and major political outcomes such as the five-year action plan to build support for every international effort to end the triple planetary crisis, including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Let’s ensure that mountains continue to inspire, provide and remind us how fortunate we are to have them towering above us.