Harnessing migration for climate action - an untapped opportunity?

While the interlinkages between climate change and human mobility are increasingly discussed, less attention is being paid to innovative approaches through migration, such as skills and labour partnerships across Africa and Europe that can help to foster a green, just transition. An essay by Ipek Gençsü, Research Fellow, Climate and Sustainability Programme at ODI and Raphaela Schweiger, Program Director Migration at the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Ipek Gençsü and Raphaela Schweiger | May 2021
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Global temperatures are rising, and the lives of millions of people are exposed to impacts of climate change. The African continent in particular is expected to experience a rise in average temperatures during the 21st century that is faster than the global average. The impending climate crisis not only threatens sustainable development but will affect people in critical ways, including through the greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events, water scarcity, decreased crop yields and rise of sea levels, as well as health and sanitation challenges. Moreover, the climate crisis is emerging as a key driver of the forced displacement of people.  The large-scale loss of homes and livelihoods will be devastating, and the interlinkages between climate change and migration are increasingly discussed on the global and regional level.

Migration can be seen as a possible strategy to cope with climate change

To date, the dominant narrative around migration and climate change has been negative – and has understandably drawn together many thinkers and practitioners to help alleviate the impact of these challenges outlined. Yet, throughout history, migration has always been a way to adapt to a changing climate. It can thus be seen as a possible strategy to cope with climate change, ranging from seasonal migration to more fertile areas, to migrants sending remittances that improve the living conditions of communities left behind.

Migration can help meet the labour market needs of the low-carbon transition

Less attention is being paid to the new opportunities that human mobility can bring to countries that are on the cusp of transitioning towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

As the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change closes, countries across the world, from Germany to Ghana, must transform their energy, industrial, land-use and urban systems to reach net-zero emissions – as well as climate-proof their economies and societies against new hazards. Such profound change will require workers with new knowledge and skills, from manufacturing solar panels, to installing electric car charging infrastructure, to new agricultural practices, to building more energy-efficient homes. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicts that the move to a green economy will result in the creation of 24 million jobs between 2018 and 2030 (such as the clean energy sector), and a loss of only 6 million in high-carbon sectors (such as fossil fuel energy). As ODI argues in its recent report, migration of workers both within and between countries can help meet the labour market needs of the low-carbon transition – alongside appropriate skills development for those in situ, including workers displaced as high-emissions industries disappear. This should become a central element of the Europe-Africa relations, in the policy fields of both migration and climate change.

There are already numerous actors, such as international organisations, businesses, civil society, cities and philanthropic organisations, that are working in areas of climate action and fair migration, as well as skills development and labour policy. Their work, however, is often in silos – they hardly speak to one another or know of each other’s challenges and perspectives.

There is a need to break down these silos and bring the communities together, to collaborate and find the right approaches and practical solutions. Importantly, this conversation needs to go beyond usual suspects and include ‘innovators’, such as diaspora groups, foundations, think tanks, city representatives and social enterprises, who can think and act beyond ordinary processes.

Concretely, actors should work towards:

Identifying the potential of skills partnerships for migration is key

Labour migration has played a key role in economic and structural transformations throughout history. Building on these experiences, policymakers now need to focus on the successful ingredients – such as the removal of information and bureaucratic barriers, facilitating visa arrangements, and social and economic integration strategies – to allow for  more labour mobility and to prepare for a net-zero emission economy.

Cross-country and cross-sector frameworks to integrate migrants into national labour markets are key: once labour and skills needs are better-matched, mobility can really act as a positive force for the low-carbon transition.

New examples of skills partnerships can serve as a model. ILO’s skills partnerships for migration have identified the potential for skills partnerships between different countries and key skills stakeholders. Initiatives on skills portability in Africa recommend better mapping of labour market needs compared to existing occupations and qualifications, which can underpin strategies for skills development and employability.

But all stakeholders need to be bold. Labour, migration and climate change are all fiercely contested policy arenas; bringing them together will be even more controversial. Progress will require thought leaders and decision-makers to push boundaries, starting with having the courage to embrace human mobility to help achieve our climate goals, instead of assuming that the movement of people is something to be reduced or stopped. Policymakers and non-state actors will need to experiment with new ideas and new ways of working to successfully bridge these policy siloes.