Meet the Steering Committee: GRID-Arendal, Representative of Global Major Group Organizations


The Mountain Partnership is guided by an 18-member Steering Committee that represents the diversity of the entire membership and ensures geographic representation. A new Steering Committee is elected approximately every four years. Most recently, elections were held in September 2022 during the sixth Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership.

In this new series, we will be talking to the new members of the Steering Committee. Today, we are introducing Björn Alfthan, the Mountain Partnership focal point for GRID-Arendal, representing the Mountain Partnership's member Global Major Groups Organizations. Find out what he has to say about GRID-Arendal's projects and his vision for the future of the Mountain Partnership.

What is GRID-Arendal, and how does it work on mountain issues?

GRID-Arendal is a collaborating centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It was established in 1989 by the Norwegian government specifically to support UNEP and the UN system on the environment. Our slogan is "Environmental knowledge for change".

We have a long history of working in polar regions, especially in the Arctic. As a natural extension, just over a decade ago, we expanded our work into other cryosphere regions, especially the Hindu Kush Himalayas. In 2012, we started a project with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) called the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme.

Since then, we have expanded our work to other mountain regions, focusing mainly on producing assessments and running projects related to climate change and adaptation, biodiversity conservation, and waste management. We work in close collaboration with ICIMOD, UNEP and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and with regional mountain centres such as the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion (CONDESAN), but also with other partners such as the Mountain Research Initiative, International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) and the Killian Jornet Foundation.

Our special niche to which we contribute is the science-policy interface, combining our in-depth knowledge of mountain challenges and topics with our ability to work with scientists and experts and our analytical communication approaches.

Why do mountains matter to you personally and to your culture?

Being based in a coastal town of Norway, it might seem a bit strange that we have such a strong connection to mountains, but we are an international team. Some of us grew up close to the Alps, two members of our team have PhDs in glaciology or related topics, and all of us enjoy spending time in the mountains in one way or another here in Norway and elsewhere. Norway itself is home to a lot of mountains and ice, both on the mainland and on Svalbard.

What is GRID-Arendal doing to promote sustainable mountain development?

Right now, we have a number of ongoing projects in mountain regions. We are working with UNEP on the Vanishing Treasures programme, financed by the Government of Luxembourg, which focusses on conserving several flagship mammals in the mountains of Bhutan, Central Asia and East Africa. Specifically, we play a role in communication, assessments and policy outreach. We are similarly involved in a sister project of the Vanishing Treasure programme, the Central Asian Mammals and Climate Adaptation (CAMCA), financed by the Government of Germany.

We are also working closely with UNEP and Sustainable Caucasus to produce the second State of the Environment report for the Caucasus region, which should be ready later this year.

With ICIMOD, we have just finished our work on Resilient Mountain Solutions and are now discussing ways to follow up.

We also stay engaged in research and are partners in two projects financed by the Norwegian Research Council focused on glaciers and societal interactions, GOTHEKA-NOCK and NATURICE.

For our work on waste and plastics, we have an ongoing project called RIPL (Preventing Plastics in Nepal rivers by strengthening the informal sector) with a local recycling company, DOKO Recyclers, and the non-governmental organization CREASION, which focusses on keeping plastics out of Kathmandu´s rivers (and thereby preventing it from moving downhill and into the sea) and creating a viable business model for the informal sector to recover and recycle plastics.

Our work on the Global Mountain Waste Survey in 2021 led to stronger collaborations with IFMGA and the Kilian Jornet Foundation, among others. With IFMGA, we developed a series of “Mountain Talks” aimed at mountaineers and guides covering topics like permafrost and safety, and sustainability in guiding. We just started a joint project with the Kilian Jornet Foundation called GreenTrailsConcept, which is looking at developing a certification system for trail running events. We are excited to grow our “sporting” portfolio because it is an area where we could make a lot of impact and reach lots of people. 

Finally, we also have a team here at GRID-Arendal working closely with the Norwegian government to advance discussions and preparations for the global plastics treaty. We are looking closely at how we could bring this expertise into mountain regions.

What tangible impact has your organization had on communities and/or landscapes?

Being based in Norway, we are normally one step removed from work on the ground, so we really do rely on having strong partnerships with regional and local organizations to create impact on the ground. Having said that, we are really proud of our achievements with our partners.

Over a decade ago, the GEO Ice and Snow Report helped put the cryosphere, including in mountains, on the radar of governments worldwide. When the process to develop the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was underway, our work with UNEP and the Mountain Partnership on the “Why Mountains Matter” SDG briefs was really well received. The series of Adaptation Outlooks that we developed with UNEP and partners around 2015-2018 also helped to create regional mountain policy frameworks for adaptation in several mountain regions (e.g. Andes, East Africa).

With ICIMOD, the work in the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme on piloting early-warning systems and other pilots were replicated widely throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Himalayan Climate and Water Atlas was – the last time we checked – still one of the most downloaded publication on ICIMOD’s website, illustrating the demand for this type of accessible information. All of these efforts, together with the countless efforts of our colleagues around the world, contributed to raising awareness about the importance of mountain environments and bringing mountains higher up on the global agenda.

What do you gain from being a Mountain Partnership member?

Our collaboration with the Mountain Partnership dates back to 2012. Since then, we have been following the work of the Partnership and were often also involved in the work, through UNEP. In 2022, we became a Mountain Partnership member ourselves.

We feel it is a really important partnership that gathers many of the important players – big and small organizations alike – working together for the joint cause of mountains. It is a benefit for us not only in terms of visibility, but also keeping our finger on the pulse of what is happening and upcoming for mountains, and being able to network and collaborate with a whole range of partners.

I think we are only just scratching the surface so far. There is huge potential for what this partnership can still bring, both to our work and the work of others. Our new role on the Steering Committee also gives us a greater insight and ability to contribute, which we look forward to doing in the coming years.

As a newly elected member of the Steering Committee, what objectives do you have for your constituency to increase engagement and promote sustainable mountain development?

We were honoured to be elected to represent the global civil society constituency group late last year during the Mountain Partnership Global Meeting in Aspen. It is going to be a tough act to follow after all the hard work that Carolina Adler and her team at the Mountain Research Initiative [the previous Steering Committee representative for Global Major Groups] put in.

One of our goals for the Steering Committee is to be a voice for our members, which in practice means reaching out to our constituency on a regular basis and channeling this through to final decisions made by the Committee. Our constituency is made up of some very interesting and diverse organizations, many of whom have both local, through to regional and global reach. We see there is a lot of potential to bring this group together!

Another goal is to advance the Mountain Partnership´s work in the international arena on climate change, biodiversity, and pollution. We will be looking for advice and working with our constituency, as well as the new Scientific Advisory Group being formed, to bring forward issues, challenges and opportunities on mountains in international processes such as the UNFCCC and CBD, as well as the global treaty on plastics, as mentioned earlier.

Finally, we hope to really bring our expertise and engagement to strengthen the visibility of mountains, through new types of products and projects. We are particularly interested in looking more closely at upstream/downstream linkages and identifying hotspots around the world where we can work further on this.

Follow this new series from the Mountain Partnership Secretariat to learn more about your electoral group's elected Steering Committee representative! Not sure which electoral group you're a part of? Visit your government or organization's member detail page or contact [email protected].

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Photo: ©Svein Rasmussen

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