UN Climate Change Summits: With or Without Tibet *By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen Read story here
The 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) or the UN Climate Summits will be organized by the government of Fiji. But due to logistic issues to accommodate tens of thousands of delegates from 197 member states, the conference will be held in Bonn, Germany from 6-17 November 2017. This mega event is the world’s biggest climate conference attended by heads of states, government delegates, climate scientists, environment researchers and activists from from across the globe.
Fiji, which is home to over 870,000 people, is frequently hit by cyclones and floods as a result of climate change. Rapid sea-level rise has threatened the island nation and forced villages to move to higher grounds.
Located far away from the pacific island nation of Fiji, the Tibetan plateau is another region that is facing the brutal brunt of climate change. A small team of Tibetan delegates, though unrecognized as a sovereign member delegates, have been faithfully attending the UN climate summits since 1992 to voice its plight. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the first ever Tibetan to speak at such summits on Tibet’s environment.
Why Tibet needs to be at the UN Climate Change Summits
Tibet, known as the “Roof of the World”, is an environmentally strategic area and critical to the health of the planet. As the world focuses on climate action at COP23 and beyond, Tibet must be central to any progress made on climate change.
The Tibetan Plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level and covering an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, is the highest and largest plateau on earth. Tibet is also the head source of Asia’s greatest rivers supporting livelihood in 10 most densely populated nations in the world, such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
After the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan Plateau with 46,000 glaciers, is home to the third largest concentration of ice on earth. Hence is rightly referred to as the planet’s ‘Third Pole’ and any drastic land cover change on the third pole will resonate across Asia and beyond.
But due to its vast surface area at an extreme elevation, the temperature rise on the Tibetan Plateau is twice more the global average. This has led to rapid glacial retreat and permafrost degradation. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 82% of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have retreated in the last fifty years. If the current rate continues, then 2/3 of all glaciers on the plateau would be gone by 2050 (Tandong Yao). The fast thawing of permafrost on the plateau would result in the release of vast quantity of carbon into the atmosphere. This could further exacerbate the rising temperature and cause extreme climatic conditions across the world. The plateau not only influences the timing and intensity of Asian monsoons but the increasing heat waves in Europe are also linked to the decreasing glaciers on the Tibetan plateau.
The rapid melting of glaciers would cause sudden surge in river flows in the next few years, causing floods and landslides. But the river volume could reach peak by 2030 and then would start to decline, causing unimaginable difficulties across Asia.
Tibetan Participation at the UN Climate Change Summits
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the first ever Tibetan participants at UN climate summits when His Holiness was invited at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. His Holiness spoke on the issue of the Tibetan Plateau and its environmental significance. Around the same time the Environment & Development Desk (EDD) of the Central Tibetan Administration also came into existence. Since then, EDD has been working on Tibet’s environmental issues to understand the environmental conditions in Tibet, to highlight the global significance of the plateau and work for the protection its environment.
After His Holiness’s presence at the Earth Summit, the second batch of Tibetan delegates to attend such summit was in 2009 when a strong team of Tibetan delegates led by EDD attended the COP15 in Copenhengen. The successful Tibetan presence at Copenhengen resulted in the continued participation of Tibetans at the subsequent UN climate conferences. The Tibetan participants, despite without negotiating rights, sincerely devoted their presence at UN climate conferences on environmental issues in whatever little possible way they could.
After 10 years of His Holiness’s presence at the Rio Earth Summit, a lone Tibetan participant at 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit was a memorable experience for this writer. The experience instilled sense of hope and desire to do whatever little one can in protecting Tibet’s environment and contributing to the success of UN climate negotiations.
The 2015 participation at the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris was probably the biggest and most successful Tibetan participation. Seminars and side events were held, Tibet Climate Action slogans resonated across the globe. His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivered a powerful and passionate video messages for the world during COP21. In the message, His Holiness said “this blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof”.
Therefore, the world need to fix the leaking roof instead of playing politics on non-political issues like environment.
Tibet, China and the World should be partners
Environment is an issue that concerns us all. It knows no political boundary as His Holiness the Dalai Lama rightly said in his COP21 message. His Holiness also emphasized that the environmental issues of Tibet is something that concerns not only the Tibetans but over a billion human lives in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other southern regions of Himalaya. Tibetans have always lived in harmony with nature and protected the environment in which they lived, as they have great love and respect for nature.
Tibet witnessed unprecedented number of natural disasters across the plateau with glacial avalanches, droughts and mud floods in 2016. This signaled a drastic climatic shift and a new weather pattern on the plateau. This year the situation got worse with simultaneous floods across much of the South-eastern regions of Tibet, clearly indicating urgent need for action.
There has been some positive environmental changes in recent years and months as the world unitedly signed Paris Agreement in 2015 and Chinese President Xi gave great importance to environment in his opening speech at the recently concluded 19th National People’s Congress. There seem to be a common desire among all, the Tibetan people, the Chinese government and the international community to collectively work for a greener and more sustainable future. This is absolutely possible and necessary.
It’s time the Chinese government and the world live up to their pledges and promises in combating global warming and protecting the environment. For a genuine effort in combating global climate, the protection of the Tibetan plateau is paramount. According to V Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist ‘our understanding of global climate change would be incomplete without taking into consideration what’s happening to the Tibetan plateau’.
Environment should be considered an apolitical issue that Tibetan people and the Chinese government can work together. We must respect and consult each other on any environmental issues that concerns the Tibetan plateau.
The United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should Launch a scientific research studies to better understand both the impact of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau and the Plateau’s critical role in reversing the effects of global climate change. Such studies would inform and enable Tibetans, the Chinese government and the international community to protect, mitigate and adapt to climate change on the Tibetan Plateau.
Recognize the global significance of the Tibetan Plateau and world leaders gathering in Bonn must make Tibet central to global climate change discussions.
To avoid a socio-environmental catastrophe, the world need to set political games aside and act now to protect the Tibetan Plateau’s fragile ecosystem. For which, the Tibetan participation at such climate summits are important and Tibetan voices at climate debates are necessary.
*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute