The impact of low-carbon policy on migration




Reilly, M.
Hossain, Y.


The impact of low-carbon policy on migration




Government Office for Science UK


The paucity of evidence on the impact of current mitigation policy on migration and the uncertainty surrounding future policy is highly problematic for projecting outcomes, both temporally and geographically. Nevertheless, low carbon policies could have effects on population mobility and displacement by changing the net expected income differentials between areas of origin and destination, disrupting the livelihoods of households reliant on natural resources, modifying direct transport costs and altering returns to human capital. The global economic costs of greenhouse gas abatement are highly uncertain, but they will not be uniform across either countries or sectors. For all but the most pessimistic cost estimates, aggregate mitigation costs should be absorbed by future global economic growth, but there still exists some potential for regulatory arbitrage within sectors. Emissions-intensive firms open to international trade could cross borders in the absence of regional agreements. Renewable energy production is more labour intensive than fossil fuel production in manufacturing and operational terms, although this is likely to lessen in the long term as efficiency gains bring down costs. Direct employment in the energy sector is relatively small compared with other sectors, and it is male dominated. Most new recruitment would be sourced from the existing workforce. If the USA is typical of developed countries, then relatively few low-carbon jobs may be low skilled. The largest source of low-carbon jobs for the low skilled in the developing world is likely to be in labour-intensive biofuel harvesting. Ineffective international governance of climate change would exacerbate the unequal distribution of costs across countries and sectors, and as these costs accumulate with inaction and climate damages rise, belated policy could result in volatile changes in net expected income differentials between countries, livelihood losses from socioecological systems and direct transport costs. Ambitious targets for large-scale hydropower and biomass production could result in internal displacement. New biomass markets also offer direct opportunities for smallholders and households to diversify income; however, they could present indirect threats if production has a disruptive effect on livelihoods by diminishing the quantity and quality of local ecosystem services or if higher food prices increase food insecurity. The growth expected in biomass production would be expected to have an impact on households who are dependent on forests for their livelihoods, especially if a lack of rights renders them vulnerable to access restrictions. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) and the green climate fund should improve the criteria for sustainable development objectives of approved projects so that vulnerable people are protected from both physical and livelihood displacement. Energy efficiency gains, the multilateral removal of fossil fuel-energy subsidies and investment in clean energy technologies have the potential to change expected net income differentials in migration corridors. The precise impact of direct transport costs on mobility will vary among migrants, but given that average costs to 2030 are expected to be high, it would probably have a dampening effect on movement. Low-carbon urbanisation in developing countries is a significant cross-sectoral opportunity, but achieving low-emission building, public transport and waste management is capital intensive. While high- density, compact cities may have lower costs of living and a higher quality of life for residents, low-income rural–urban migrants may be excluded from these benefits. Low-carbon policies have the opportunity to improve the access of rural areas in the developing world to energy, which could have a highly significant impact on mobility. Stand-alone renewable technologies and micro-grids can be competitive in rural areas and their effective deployment (including through the CDM) is likely to boost rural incomes and be a ‘pull’ factor at areas of origin. Beyond the short term, with increased income the economic costs of mobility may be less prohibitive, and these movements would be part of a pathway to development and not environmentally induced mobility with operational or geopolitical difficulties. The precise impacts of existing mitigation policy on migration are often difficult to distinguish, and more empirical research is urgently required in this area. Nevertheless, the impact on mobility in the short to medium term is likely to be modest with some new direct employment opportunities for a range of skills and the potential for low-income smallholders and households to diversify income. In the longer term, if the transition to a low-carbon society induces a new wave of innovation, the impact on labour markets could be transformative The sheer size of the developing-world population dependent on agriculture and forestry raises concerns that poorly designed and implemented policies to increase low-carbon energy supply and improve carbon sequestration could, paradoxically, harm the livelihoods that mitigation policy is intended to protect. If low-carbon policies are crafted systemically at appropriate levels of governance and in accordance with other strategic objectives such as sustainable development, energy access, poverty reduction, adaptation to climate change, and maintaining ecosystem services and biodiversity, the outcomes of greenhouse gas abatement are more likely to be beneficial in the short, medium and long term.


Reilly, M., & Hossain, Y. (2011). The impact of low-carbon policy on migration. London : Government Office for Science UK.