What will increased migration and the climate crisis mean for business?

The world is getting warmer due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly commonplace, reliable rains are failing and sea levels are rising.And things are only set to worsen as temperatures rise.

What will increased migration and the climate crisis mean for business?

Businesses building climate forecasts into their planning think largely of their own material assets – asking introspective questions such as whether their factories can cope with the physical changes happening around them. But what about the people that work there?

In many parts of the world, the impacts of climate change are undermining communities’ life support systems. In some instances this is leading to violent conflict, economic instability and societal unrest, prompting people to flee in huge numbers.

Extreme droughts, for example, fuelled the war in Syria, driving five million people to migrate and displacing a further six million. The UN’s International Organisation for Migration states that by 2050 there could be as many as one billion climate refugees globally. That’s one in nine people.

Political responses are varied and volatile 

Far right, protectionist politicians are gaining ground on the back of immigration fears around the world, impacting businesses’ ability to trade and move workers between locations.

Conversely, some established leaders are welcoming the rise in immigration as a boost to the economy. This can be seen in Germany’s response to the Syria crisis, where the government granted asylum to one million refugees in part to fill the country’s chronic labour shortages. Integrating them into the workforce has taken time and innovative approaches, such as automotive giant Daimler AG’s internship programme for asylum seekers. But the hard work has paid off, and today more than 300,000 refugees have already found employment in Germany. 

Climate action could also cause migration

To prevent one billion people being forced to flee their homes due to climate change, we need to do everything we can to control global warming. And to do that, the world’s top climatologists tell us we must bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero somewhere between 2030 and 2050. The fact that emissions are still rising just 11 years out shows how massive such changes to the world’s energy, transport, the built environment and agriculture systems would be.

Whilst there are huge employment opportunities to come from the transition to a net zero economy, there are also threats to communities in how this plays out which could inadvertently add to migration pressures. For example, if agriculture becomes largely automated and “goes high tech” to, say, finely tune the soil conditions to suck more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then the redundant farmers could head for the cities.

Businesses need to respond by ensuring they provide economic opportunities in places where high carbon emissions sectors are closed down or transformed. In the fossil fuel space, for example, companies can forecast when and where impacts will be felt – through plant closures etc. – and make use of the skilled workforces that are becoming available. Renewable energy businesses in Pittsburgh, USA, have done just this as coal mines and steel works closed there, and Scotland is preparing for the ending of North Sea oil and gas through its Just Transition Commission.

Over to business

Climate change-related migration is one of seven megatrends identified in Forum for the Future’s recent Future of Sustainability report as having a very significant role in shaping the future. It is clear that whether we are able to limit global warming to less than 1.5c or not, further disruption and migration is inevitable.

So, how can we as businesses prepare for this change?

Firstly, companies need to consider how climate change is likely to impact their workforce and those in your supply chains as part of your strategic planning. There’s no point building your factory on higher ground to ward off the threat of rising sea levels, for example, if the workforce has already been forced to leave the area because of persistent droughts. Conversely, some of your locations may become destinations for migrants; how can you use this as an opportunity to integrate them into your company and wider society?

Secondly, innovate for increased transience within your workers and consumers. As climate change impacts take greater hold people may well move more often and so your products and services may need to adapt to suit this. For example, people may own fewer material possessions and need more temporary housing. What does that mean for your business?

Build your understanding of which cities and regions could lose out from the rapid shift to a net zero carbon economy and support clean businesses to provide alternative economic opportunities, working with governments on a ‘just transition’

As well as being at the front of the race to a zero carbon economy, in order to survive and thrive, businesses must plan for and respond to climate change, migration and the political and economic changes that each in tandem will unfurl. The businesses that respond to this complexity will create the future, those that don’t will be lost to history.

Will Dawson is associate director, climate and energy at Forum for the Future

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