Migration and global environmental change – Future challenges and opportunities






Migration and global environmental change – Future challenges and opportunities




Government Office for Science


This report considers migration in the context of environmental change over the next 50 years. The scope of this report is international: it examines global migration trends, but also internal migration trends particularly within low-income countries, which are often more important in this context. The report has the following key conclusions:
● Environmental change will affect migration now and in the future, specifically through its influence on a range of economic, social and political drivers which themselves affect migration. However, the range and complexity of the interactions between these drivers means that it will rarely be possible to distinguish individuals for whom environmental factors are the sole driver (‘environmental migrants’). Nonetheless there are potentially grave implications of future environmental change for migration, for individuals and policy makers alike, requiring a strategic approach to policy which acknowledges the opportunities provided by migration in certain situations.
●Powerful economic, political and social drivers mean that migration is likely to continue regardless of environmental change. People are as likely to migrate to places of environmental vulnerability as from these places. For example, compared to 2000, there may be between 114 and 192 million additional people living in floodplains in urban areas in Africa and Asia by 2060, in alternative scenarios of the future. This will pose a range of challenges to policy makers.
●● The impact of environmental change on migration will increase in the future. In particular, environmental change may threaten people’s livelihoods, and a traditional response is to migrate. Environmental change will also alter populations’ exposure to natural hazards, and migration is, in many cases, the only response to this. For example, 17 million people were displaced by natural hazards in 2009 and 42 million in 2010 (this number also includes those displaced by geophysical events).
●● The complex interactions of drivers can lead to different outcomes, which include migration and displacement. In turn, these types of outcomes can pose more ‘operational’ challenges or more ‘geopolitical’ challenges. There are powerful linkages between them. Planned and well-managed migration (which poses operational challenges) can reduce the chance of later humanitarian emergencies and displacement.
●● Environmental change is equally likely to make migration less possible as more probable. This is because migration is expensive and requires forms of capital, yet populations who experience the impacts of environmental change may see a reduction in the very capital required to enable a move.
●● Consequently, in the decades ahead, millions of people will be unable to move away from locations in which they are extremely vulnerable to environmental change. To the international community, this ‘trapped’ population is likely to represent just as important a policy concern as those who do migrate. Planned and well-managed migration can be one important solution for this population of concern.
●● Preventing or constraining migration is not a ‘no risk’ option. Doing so will lead to increased impoverishment, displacement and irregular migration in many settings, particularly in low elevation coastal zones, drylands and mountain regions. Conversely, some degree of planned and proactive migration of individuals or groups may ultimately allow households and populations to remain in situ for longer. The challenges of migration in the context of environmental change require a new strategic approach to policy. Policy makers will need to take action to reduce the impact of environmental change on communities yet must simultaneously plan for migration. Critical improvements to the lives of millions are more likely to be achieved where migration is seen as offering opportunities as well as challenges.
●● Measures that prevent harmful environmental changes, reduce their impact, and build resilience in communities will diminish the influence of environmental change on migration but are unlikely to fully prevent it.
●● Migration can represent a ‘transformational’ adaptation to environmental change, and in many cases will be an extremely effective way to build long-term resilience. International policy should aim to ensure that migration occurs in a way which maximises benefits to the individual, and both source and destination communities.
●● Cities in low-income countries are a particular concern, and are faced with a ‘double jeopardy’ future. Cities are likely to grow in size, partly because of rural–urban migration trends, whilst also being increasingly threatened by global environmental change. These future threats will add to existing fragilities, whilst new urban migrants are, and will continue to be, particularly vulnerable.
Yet this report argues against trying to prevent rural–urban migration, as this could lead to graver outcomes for those who are trapped in vulnerable rural areas.
In summary, the key message of this report is that migration in the face of global environmental change may not be just part of the ‘problem’ but can also be part of the solution. In particular, planned and facilitated approaches to human migration can ease people out of situations of vulnerability. In light of this, international policy makers should consider the detailed evidence from this report in a range of areas, with the following of particular priority:
1. Many of the funding mechanisms for adaptation to environmental change are currently under discussion. It is imperative that these mechanisms are not developed in isolation from migration issues and, furthermore, that the transformational opportunities of migration is recognised.
2. Whilst the twin challenges of population growth and environmental change will pose an increasing threat to urban areas in the future, cities in many countries are already failing their citizens. Action is required before the situation becomes irreversible, to build urban infrastructure that is sustainable, flexible and inclusive. The cost of inaction is likely to be higher than the costs of measures discussed in this report, especially if they reduce the likelihood of problematic displacement. Giving urgent policy attention to migration in the context of environmental change now will prevent a much worse and more costly situation in the future


Foresight. (2011). Migration and global environmental change – Future challenges and opportunities. London: Government Office for Science. URL : https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/287717/11-1116-migration-and-global-environmental-change.pdf