Global warming could add 216 million climate refugees by 2050

The World Bank’s updated Groundswell report released today finds that climate change, an increasingly potent driver of migration, could force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050.

In the most moderate impact scenario, with a low level of emissions and inclusive, sustainable development, the world would still see 44 million people forced to leave their homes.

Hotspots of internal climate migration could emerge as early as 2030 and continue to spread and intensify by 2050. The report also finds that immediate and concerted action to reduce global emissions, and support green, inclusive, and resilient development, could reduce the scale of climate migration by as much as 80 percent.

Climate change is a powerful driver of internal migration because of its impacts on people’s livelihoods and loss of livability in highly exposed locations.

By 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa could see as many as 86 million internal climate migrants; East Asia and the Pacific, 49 million; South Asia, 40 million; North Africa, 19 million; Latin America, 17 million; and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 5 million.

“The Groundswell report is a stark reminder of the human toll of climate change, particularly on the world’s poorest—those who are contributing the least to its causes. It also clearly lays out a path for countries to address some of the key factors that are causing climate-driven migration,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank. “All these issues are fundamentally connected which is why our support to countries is positioned to deliver on climate and development objectives together while building a more sustainable, safe and resilient future.”

The updated report includes projections and analysis for three regions: East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It builds on the novel and pioneering modeling approach of the previous World Bank Groundswell report from 2018, which covered Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

By deploying a scenario-based approach, the report explores potential future outcomes, which can help decision-makers plan ahead. The approach allows for the identification of internal climate in- and out- migration hotspots, namely the areas from which people are expected to move due to increasing water scarcity, declining crop productivity, and sea-level rise, and urban and rural areas with better conditions to build new livelihoods.

The report provides a series of policy recommendations that can help slow the factors driving climate migration and prepare for expected migration flows, including:

  • Reducing global emissions and making every effort to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.
  • Embedding internal climate migration in far-sighted green, resilient, and inclusive development planning.
  • Preparing for each phase of migration, so that internal climate migration as an adaptation strategy can result in positive development outcomes.
  • Investing in better understanding of the drivers of internal climate migration to inform well-targeted policies.

“This is our humanitarian reality right now and we are concerned this is going to be even worse, where vulnerability is more acute,” said Prof. Maarten van Aalst, director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, who wasn’t involved with the report.

Many scientists say the world is no longer on track to the worst-case scenario for emissions. But even under a more moderate scenario, van Aalst said many impacts are now occurring faster than previously expected, “including the extremes we are already experiencing, as well as potential implications for migration and displacement.”

While climate change’s influence on migration is not new, it is often part of a combination of factors pushing people to move, and acts as a threat multiplier. People affected by conflicts and inequality are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as they have limited means to adapt.

“Globally we know that three out of four people that move stay within countries,” said Dr. Kanta Kumari Rigaud, a lead environmental specialist at the World Bank and co-author of the report.

The report also warns that migration hot spots could appear within the next decade and intensify by 2050. Planning is needed both in the areas where people will move to, and in the areas they leave to help those who remain.

Among the actions recommended were achieving “net zero emissions by mid-century to have a chance at limiting global warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius” and investing in development that is “green, resilient, and inclusive, in line with the Paris Agreement.”

Clement and Rigaud warned that the worst-case scenario is still plausible if collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in development isn’t taken soon, especially in the next decade.

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