refugee climate environment development matters. Photo-Sebastien Goldberg-unsplash

No longer a blind spot: Climate change adaptation policies must address forced displacement

By Jason Gagnon, Head of Unit, Migration & Skills, OECD Development Centre and Jens Hesemann, Senior Policy Advisor, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

A web of inter-linked factors force people to move. Among them, the effects of climate change have grown in importance since the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drawn up in 1951. In fact, people displaced by the effects of climate change are out of scope from the Convention.  

And yet, climate-induced displacement is likely to increase significantly: approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people were living in contexts highly vulnerable to climate change as of 2022. The global population exposed to river floods, for example, will increase by 120% if global warming increases by 2°C, and estimates are that such floods already account for 10 million internal displacements each year.  

There are efforts to address climate-related displacement, but they are siloed and fragmented, with persistent gaps, overlaps, and no clear hierarchy. Importantly, responses to forced displacement are largely humanitarian in nature, even though most displacement is not only protracted, but likely permanent in the case of climate-related displacement. Therefore, as a rising fixture in the future of our planet, climate-induced displacement demands a more structural, long-term, development-oriented approach, alongside humanitarian responses. Countries must integrate the reality of displacement in the priorities they define in their development and climate adaptation.  

How do countries set their priorities for climate adaptation? 

National priorities on climate action are set by two separate commitments by countries, agreed upon during past Conferences of the Parties (COP)

  • National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), established in 2010 at COP16 in Cancún, as part of the Cancún Adaptation Framework, are submitted by developing states to detail their medium- and long-term adaptation priorities and strategies. They are tools for identifying and prioritising adaptation needs, as well as for endorsing strategies and actions to address these needs. 
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), set five years later in 2015 at COP21 in Paris, are climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. All countries are required to establish an NDC and update it every five years, as part of the Paris Agreement.  

Both represent commitments regarding adaptation, but at different levels. While NAPs aim to integrate adaption explicitly into planning processes at national level, NDCs are broader in scope, setting national objectives towards addressing the challenges of climate change, including adaptation measures. Examples of adaptation include Indonesia moving its capital city from Jakarta to Nusantara, the construction of a green wall across the Sahel and West Africa, the identification and subsequent protection of water reserves in Mexico and the creation of market-based financial disaster risk tools in Africa.  

Importantly, NAPs and NDCs are designed to set national priorities, targets and commitments, and to justify and register needs for climate finance from international partners. They thus have political and operational significance also for mobilising resources, including from development co-operation providers such as members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), for action on climate change adaptation.  

Finally, both sets of plans rest on the principle that we must adapt to climate change, and protect the places and livelihoods we value in anticipation of it. Crucially, they invoke the need to prepare and respond, not only prevent such changes. In the face of its growing importance, better preparing for climate-induced displacement is thus essential. 

How is forced displacement addressed in climate change adaptation commitments? 

Analysing 42 NAPs and 166 NDCs, as of 2023, the OECD found that only one-third of all countries mention forced displacement in either NAPs or NDCs. The picture is brighter for NAPS: 48% of states include concrete provisions on climate-related displacement in them, against 14% in NDCs. 

Where they address forced displacement, NAPs and NDCs suffer from: 

  • Lacking concrete commitments, objectives, and tangible actions related to addressing climate related forced displacement; 
  • Failing to address concerns of pre-existing refugees and internally displaced persons, who are amongst the most vulnerable and often live in areas at-risk of being climate change; 
  • Rarely making the connection between displacement and loss and damage (L&D). 

The inclusion of forced displacement in NAPs and NDCs requires mobilising political will in climate change-affected countries, and building trust between these countries and their development partners, through predictable multi-year engagement. When there are firm implementable commitments by countries and their partners, political will can be mobilised over time. Ahead of the 2023 Global Refugee Forum, and to COP28, a pledge to better include forced displacement in NAPs and NDCs would reaffirm their steady resolve to address the complex interlinkages between migration, forced displacement, development, and climate change.  

Where to start? 

  1. Get the right people speaking together. NAPs and NDCs are typically run by environmental experts. Not those whose job it is to think of internal displacement. Nor finance. Nor technical implementation. These people need to also be at the table.  
  1. Synergise. There are low hanging fruits. Extending ongoing climate change adaptation initiatives to displaced persons, and those tackling forced displacement to climate change, would generate immediate dividends. New programmes should make sure to connect the two. Beyond NAPs and NDCs, forced displacement should be explicitly included in development plans, as well as in disaster risk reduction and resilience agendas.    
  1. Think long-term. Think 360 degrees. Concerns related to climate change are a long-term game. Addressing forced displacement in NAPs and NDCs is not just a matter of mainstreaming them across a policy document. It is about thinking of the long-term implications of people living in places they have little knowledge about. It is about connecting them to the future plans of the country. This implies addressing the root causes of climate-induced forced displacement, but also the sustainable integration of populations into new territories, their social protection, health and education, as well as their livelihoods. 
  1. Reach beyond borders. The concerns related to forced displacement due to climate change are not limited to national borders. People are displaced across borders, and mix with migrant flows. As much as climate change is global phenomenon, displacement-sensitive adaptation planning should also be tackled regionally and globally, providing space for peer-learning, co-ordination and coherence. 

Finally, the inclusion of climate-induced displacement in the priorities of countries and their partners must be monitored over time. Little is known about the inclusion of the forcibly displaced in national services and the formal economy. Supporting displacement-affected countries, by monitoring displacement disaggregated socio-economic data, will increase our awareness and inform good decision making, including efforts towards climate action.    

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg