Presentation made in Madrid on December 7, 2019.
Climate change on the Tibetan plateau,
a daunting threat, also for Europe

(link to video available here below)
  • A delegation from the Tibetan government in exile visited COP25 in Madrid to report the seriousness of a problem that affects 40 per cent of the world's population.
  • The unstoppable melting of its 46,000 glaciers is partly responsible for the suffocating heat waves in Europe and could compromise rivers that support 3 billion people in Asia
  • The Tibetan delegation asks the UN to recognize the problem and Europe in particular to raise awareness and develop research projects with China in the quest for joint solutions.
Madrid, Dec 20, 2019. The Tibetan Plateau plays a key role in the global climate system. A study from scientists at China’s Nanjing University show that decreasing snow cover in Tibet determines the unusual heat waves of Europe and Northeast Asia. The retreat of this snow cover triggers high pressure on southern Europe and northern East Asia, reducing cloud formation and raising temperatures. Warm and dry conditions in turn further inhibit cloud formation, intensifying local heat waves, says an article recently published in Climate Dynamics. On the other hand, according to UNESCO, the Indian summer monsoon is intensified and the East China summer monsoon is weakened due to human-induced land cover change on the Tibetan Plateau. Likewise, a study from the Meteorological Research Division in Canada, observed evidence that the autumn snow cover anomalies in the Tibetan Plateau can make a significant impact on the abnormal winter temperatures over North America.

Tibet plays a key role in the global climate system and it is for this reason that it is known as the “Weather Maker”.

These are some of the messages that the government delegation, accompanied by several international scientists, has presented during the symposium held at the Athenaeum of Madrid, "Climate change on the Tibetan plateau: The Third Earth Pole" in order for global measures to be taken immediately to stop its degradation.

The Tibetan plateau is the tallest and largest on Earth, with an extension similar to Europe. It is known as the "Third Pole" because it contains 46,000 glaciers, being the third largest ice deposit on the planet, after the North and South Poles. It is also the largest source of accessible fresh water in the world. Asia's 6 greatest and most important rivers originate from Tibet and flow into the 10 most densely populated regions in the world: Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China. The meltwater from the glaciers ensures a constant flow of Asia’s major rivers.

According to the ICIMOD, more than 1.5 billion people living in the river basins benefit directly and indirectly from its resources, while more than 3 billion people enjoy the food produced in the river basins, that is around 40% of the 7.8 human population. It is expected that before the end of the century, more than 400 million Asians will have to emigrate due to lack of water.

Dr. Martin Mills, director of the Scottish Centre for Himalayan Studies (University of Aberdeen) said during the event that “The huge quantities of frozen freshwater on the Tibetan Plateau make it the world’s Third Pole, but it is the only one that has half the world’s population sitting on its doorstep, dependent on it for year-round water supplies. The accelerated warming of the Plateau will seriously compromise those water supplies over the next century and, with it, agriculture, industry and human populations across Asia.”
All this as a result of a climate change that, unfortunately, is much more drastic in Tibet than in the rest of the planet: the temperature rises on the Tibetan Plateau three times the world average (0.3°C per decade compared to 0.12°C). As stated by Jane Qiu at the Nature Journal,  in the past half-century, 82% of the plateau's glaciers have retreated and  a study by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, warns that if the current rate of melting continue, then 2/3 of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau will be depleted by 2050.

On the other hand, 70 per cent of the Tibetan plateau is permafrost. Also of concern is the likely release of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from such soil as it thaws. A report from the UNDP indicates that with estimates of the amount of carbon locked up in permafrost ranging between 60 and 190 billion tons, thawing of the soil of the Tibetan plateau will produce a large-scale release of greenhouse gases, further adding to the climate change process.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has recently publicly supported activist Greta Thunberg and the march for climate change, already warned in 2015 that “the Tibet Plateau needs to be protected, not only by Tibetans, but by the health of the environment and sustainability of the whole world." However, his warning fell on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, Tibet's geopolitical situation, currently controlled by Beijing, makes it very difficult to investigate and take action in this regard from an international perspective. For example, despite the fact that this climate change emergency affects at least 40 per cent of the world's population, the UNFCCC has not officially recognized the global ecological significance of the Tibetan Plateau. The subject has not been directly addressed by the Tibetan delegation at COP25 either for, it being a government in exile, the Tibetan delegation has not had official representation at the summit.

Dr. Mills stated that “Our understanding of its precise dynamics remains limited by the sheer size of the Plateau, and by the political sensitivity of the region. We urgently need international scientific teams working across the Plateau if we are to properly understand the future that we all face.”

Thawing and an increase of rainfalls are also having catastrophic consequences for the populations of the region, which are suffering devastating floods due to river overflow and landslides, which have caused thousands of deaths. These events occur every year. For example, on October 11, 2018 and November 3, 2018, two consecutive landslides took place in eastern Tibet causing the blockage of the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, with disastrous consequences.

"Tibet has seen increasing cases of natural disasters since 2016, primarily due to rising temperature and increasing precipitation. The situation is further exacerbated by excessive resource extraction and rapid urbanization in the region", said Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, the Executive Head of the Environment Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank based in India.
Indeed, human action in the highlands does not contribute to solve the problem.

Damage caused by rains and landslides is enhanced by uncontrolled logging of Tibetan forests. It is estimated that 46 per cent of Tibetan forests were cleared by the Chinese between 1951 and 1985. This deforestation contributed to the great flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998, during which 3,000 people died, 15 million were made homeless and 15 million farmers lost their crops, according to UNDAC. In addition, a bigger threat comes from excessive mining. Consistent with a study by the CAS Institute, Tibetan mines produced 100 million tonnes of wastewater in 2007 and 18.8 million tonnes of solid waste in 2009. Because most of the mines are open pits and have limited environmental oversight, air, water and soil pollution is particularly serious.
As if that were not enough, the construction of scores of dams in the rivers that originate in Tibet has accentuated the problem of water in neighbouring countries. In just over a decade more hydropower plants have been installed in China than the rest of the world combined.  China has built dams on almost all rivers in Tibet since its occupation in 1950s and has accelerated building mega dams on the plateau in recent years. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, as glacier melting changes water distribution in Asia, there is a risk of China taking a greater share of the diminished rivers, seriously affecting downstream nations. Likewise prevent the passage of sediment which are key for aquifer life and fertilization of crops. They also block fish migration, preventing species from heading upriver to spawn. All this has led to fishing shortages and crop losses among populations that depend on these activities to survive.

On the words of Michael Buckley, a Canadian researcher who has been studying the situation of Asian rivers coming from Tibet for years, “the mighty Mekong River, lifeline to 6 nations in Asia, is under threat from a dozen megadams in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Sourced in Tibet, the river nourishes key ecosystems like Lake Tonle Sap (main fishery of Cambodia), and the Mekong Delta (main provider of rice in Vietnam). The chokehold of Chinese megadams severely threaten food and water security in Cambodia and Vietnam by blocking fish migration and by blocking nutrient-rich sediment. China's megadams are unleashing an ecological disaster of epic proportions for ecosystems that depend on the Mekong river.”

For her part, Dechen Palmo, researcher at the Tibet Policy Institute, states: "The environmental health of the Tibetan plateau is critical for around 1.3 billion people who live in the river basins downstream in Asia. The Tibetan river shouldn’t be seen only as a source of hydropower; its geological significance should also be taken into serious consideration."

In the end, the Tibetan climate emergency is also a human rights issue, as Kai Müller, executive director for Germany of the International Campaign for Tibet pointed out: “Tibetans are subjected to top-down development policies and have no access to justice. Their rivers are polluted, they are driven from their lands and their pastures flooded. Their rights must be protected. This fight against climate change can only be successful, if human rights of the affected people are respected. This is also true in Tibet. But from what studies show, this rights violation is no longer limited to residents of the Tibetan plateau, but also to citizens of Asia, Europe and America who see themselves affected by what happens at the roof of the world.

It is for this reason that the Tibetan delegation has visited all other delegations during this climate summit, has participated in the social summit and the climate march and has met with various politicians. Its objective is to achieve a common front to find a solution to the problem or at least lessen its effects. MEPs such as Miguel Urbán from Podemos or Francisco Guerreiro from PAN in Portugal or the socialist Antonio Carmona have shown interest in the subject. The delegation reports that they will continue working on international relations and awareness until the climate change emergency on the Tibetan plateau is considered as what it really is, a global problem.

Contact in Spain:
Marta Esteban, communications:
Tel: +34 606 300 906
(Available on Whatsapp and Telegram)

Tibetan Centre Thubten Dhargye Ling
C/ Canillas 22
Madrid, Spain
Contact in Dharamsala, India:
Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha:
Tel: +91 9882603715
Executive Head of the Environment Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute
Central Tibetan Administation (CTA)

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(images of the event owned by the Thubten Dhargye Ling Center, images of Tibet obtained in public use libraries)

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