The lives and livelihoods of people in South Asia are at "high risk" as global warming melts glaciers in the Himalayas, sending floods crashing down from overloaded mountain lakes and depriving farmers of steady water sources, U.N. and other international experts reported Friday.
Worldwide, "since the beginning of the 1980s, the rate of ice loss has increased substantially in many regions, concurrent with an increase in global mean air temperatures," the U.N. Environment Program said.
Glaciers in southern South America and Alaska's coastal mountains have been losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers elsewhere in the world, it said.
The new U.N. assessment of recent glacier research was issued at annual climate talks, where delegates were expected, once again this year, to fail to reach agreement on long-term mandatory action to rein in emissions of global warming gases.
"These alarming findings on melting glaciers underline the importance of combating climate change globally," said Norway's environment minister, Erik Solheim, whose government supports the glacier research. "It sends a strong message to us as politicians and climate negotiators in Cancun."
In their second and final week, a spirit of compromise seemed to have settled over the talks, but negotiators were expected, at best, to agree only on secondary tools for coping with global warming, laying the groundwork, for example, for a "green fund" of $100 billion a year by 2020.
Financed by richer nations, the fund would support poorer nations in converting to cleaner energy sources and in adapting to a shifting climate that may damage people's health, agriculture and economies in general.
The Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan will need such support, as they try to cope with melting glaciers by siphoning off water from swelling glacial lakes. The work is costly and difficult in remote, high-altitude locations, UNEP said.
The experts said the incidence of "glacial lake outburst floods" has grown over the past 40 years, accounting for some of the 5,000 Asian deaths each year from flash floods. More broadly, the swift depletion of glacial waters may leave tens of thousands of farmers without irrigation water.
"The risk to lives and livelihoods in the fragile Hindu Kush Himalayan region is high and getting higher," said Madhav Karki of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
The periodic climate talks earlier this year were marked by open sniping between the U.S. and China, but that friction was not in evidence on Monday.
"There were heated discussions at Copenhagen. Here the atmosphere is relatively mild," China's climate chief, Xie Zhenhua, told reporters.
He was referring to the intense talks in the Danish capital last December that failed to produce a hoped-for binding pact requiring substantial cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other industrial, agricultural and transport gases blamed for global warming.
Cancun's spirit of compromise may be most needed in the coming days' debates over limited gestures proposed in the area of emissions reductions, as environment ministers and other negotiators from the 193 nations of the U.N. climate treaty work to wrap up their talks by Friday.
The U.S. has long refused to join the rest of the industrialized world in the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 add-on to the climate treaty that mandates modest emissions reductions by richer nations, and whose commitments expire in 2012. The U.S. complained Kyoto would hurt its economy and should have mandated actions as well by such emerging economies as China and India.
For their part, those poorer but growing nations have rejected calls that they submit to Kyoto-style legally binding commitments -- not to reduce emissions, but to cut back on emissions growth. Their first obligation, these governments say, is to develop their economies, not hobble them.
"We still have 150 million people under the poverty line," Xie told reporters Monday.
In a nonbinding Copenhagen Accord last December, an agreement not accepted by all treaty parties, the U.S. and other industrial nations announced targets for reducing emissions by 2020, and China and some other developing nations set goals, also voluntary, for cutting back on the growth of their emissions.
Many parties now want to have those voluntary targets "anchored" more formally in a document emerging from the Cancun talks. At the same time, developing countries are pressing for the industrial nations to commit in Cancun to a second Kyoto period, further mandatory cutbacks beyond 2012 -- a demand resisted by Japan, Russia and others who won't submit to more legally binding emissions cuts until the U.S., China and some others take on binding targets under treaty.
In one development on emissions, a policy-setting British government body unveiled a plan here Tuesday to slash greenhouse gases by almost half over the next 20 years, largely abandoning fossil fuels for power and vehicles.