Costs of climate inaction: displacement and distress migration


Published in December 2020, this report was written by members of the Climate Action Network South Asia (a coalition of groups in the region) and ActionAid. It highlights the need for immediate measures to reduce current and future displacement as well as distress migration due to climate change in five South Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The report notes that about 37 and 63 million people will be displaced in these countries by the years 2030 and 2050 – even if they achieve their greenhouse gas mitigation goals. This can be limited to around 22 and 34 million people if countries meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2 °C by then. (The Agreement is a legally binding treaty adopted at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015.)

Climate change has sudden and immediate manifestations such as increased flooding and storms, as well as long-term ones like desertification and rising sea levels. It severely impacts settlements and economies in vulnerable areas, especially women, young people, and poor and marginalised communities. By 2050, climate change is expected to cause a two per cent drop in the gross domestic product of countries in South Asia.

The 37-page report contains eight chapters: Executive Summary (chapter 1); Climate change impacts (chapter 2); The impacts of migration (chapter 3); The need for climate action in the Global North (chapter 4); Strengthening resilience and the right to stay (chapter 5); Planned migration and the right to move (chapter 6); Global South transitioning to greener pathways (chapter 7); and Conclusions and recommendations (chapter 8).


  1. There has been an increase in the severity and frequency of climate-related hazards, pushing people to migrate from their lands, and causing health, housing, education, poverty, gender inequality and related crises.

  2. Climate change events such as floods and cyclones destroy the limited assets owned by poorer sections, who are least equipped to respond to such occurences. For instance, cyclone Bulbul in 2019 affected 3.56 million people in West Bengal, damaged crops across 1.5 million hectares of land, caused fishery damages worth $100 million and killed more than 13,000 livestock animals.

  3. Women are especially vulnerable to the effects of crop failures and climate change due to their lack of land ownership, productive assets, as well as access to credit and financial decision-making.

  4. Certain communities are more exposed to climate change due to their geographic vulnerability, such as the people inhabiting the Sundarbans in West Bengal and Odisha’s Mahanadi delta. These regions face recurring flooding events and soil salinification, and will surely require rehabilitation in the next few decades.

  5. Less than five per cent of the cumulative emissions that have contributed to the global climate crisis have come from South Asia, which houses a fourth of the world’s population. Still, the region faces some of the most severe climate change impacts, resulting in displacement and distress migration.

  6. The richest 10 per cent in the world have caused 52 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015. About half of these emissions are associated with consumption by the citizens of North America and the European Union.

  7. Citing a 2017 study, the report states that that only 100 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 71 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans that year.

  8. A key strategy for surviving climate change is to diversify livelihood options – the report notes. This can generate new sources of income during off-seasons and in the event of crop failure, and consequently reduce risk.

  9. It is essential to strengthen social protection schemes and ensure universal access to protect the rights of those exposed to climate and related hazards. The report says: “…the poor who contribute minimally to GHG emissions, should not be left to pay for a crisis they did not cause.”

  10. It is possible to anticipate the climate events and processes that will render an area inhospitable in the future, making it crucial to plan for rehabilitation in a dignified manner. The report is of the opinion that communities must have the option to migrate together or separately, and that they are relocated with their consent and active participation.

  11. The government of India spends nearly double on fossil fuel subsidies than it does on health. The report states that South Asia must follow an equitable development path that increases resilience to climate change events, and secures the right of communities to remain in their territories. Countries should focus on making climate-friendly transitions in the sectors of energy and agriculture.

  12. Based on these facts, the report offers key recommendations. These include strengthening policies to improve people’s adaptability to climate change events; ensuring effective social protection measures; and moving towards agriculture more suited to the environment. It also advises providing livelihood options to communities in vulnerable areas; planning safe migration for people who are displaced; ensuring that corporations responsible for disproportionate carbon emissions fund these movements; promoting transitions away from fossil fuel development; and ensuring that climate-induced movement is on the agenda of inter-governmental bodies.

    Focus and Factoids by Karthik Teegalapalli.


Harjeet Singh, Jessica Faleiro, Teresa Anderson, and Sanjay Vashist


Climate Action Network South Asia and ActionAid


Dec, 2020