Analysis: what to expect on climate-driven mobility at COP26

Image: A young girl walks across a makeshift bridge over stagnant flood-water in Sindh province, Pakistan. DfID / Magnus Wolfe-Murray. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Analysis: what to expect on climate-driven mobility at COP26

Image: A young girl walks across a makeshift bridge over stagnant flood-water in Sindh province, Pakistan. DfID / Magnus Wolfe-Murray. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What – realistically – might come out of COP26 on the connections between climate change and migration? It’s worth asking this question because there has been a flurry of reporting on the issue.

This analysis makes the case that the scope for COP26 creating major a  breakthrough on climate-driven mobility is extremely limited. However, some important progress has already been made within the COP process during previous negotiations. Further, there are a number of other global policy fora which complement the COP process and provide additional possibilities for international agreement and discussion. 

The reason for this outlook is partly due to the nature of COP and the issues it can and cannot address. But it’s also because of the dynamics of climate-linked migration and displacement, who is impacted and the kind of journeys they make.

The role and purpose of COP

 COP is geared up to address certain kinds of issues. It’s been designed to help governments thrash out who is going to cut emissions, by how much and by when. It’s also geared for states to agree (or not agree, as is often the case) on who is going to pay for climate change adaptation measures and how carbon sinks like forests are going to be protected.

 What COP isn’t set up for is for states to reach agreements about protecting the rights of people. Crudely, COP is about carbon, money and time. It doesn’t have the systems or spaces to agree something on the rights of migrants and displacees. Ultimately, the issue of climate-driven migration is about the rights of people who are on the move. Their right to move, cross borders, access services, and to protection from harm while on the move. These are not issues COP has the systems or mandate to address.

No government came to the COP26 thinking they might be asked to reach an agreement on immigration, asylum, borders and human rights. So they probably won’t. 

Costs and compensation

What COP can do is to address issues around the costs incurred by countries in the Global South that result from dealing with climate driven displacement. That could and should happen as part of the Loss and Damage agenda. Previous COPs have started this and asked governments to “avert, minimize and address” climate driven displacement. They asked governments to formulate policy, assess risk, carry out research and share data.

All of this is voluntary and mostly couched in the language of states being “invited” to “consider” these proposals. Still, it’s important and we should hope that governments reiterate their support for them at this COP.

But because these recommendations have already been made it’s unlikely that anything new is going to come out of this year’s COP. That doesn’t mean that isn’t more that COP should do on displacement. But there probably isn’t going to be major break through this year.


Constraints and challenges

The issue of climate driven migration also has several dynamics that make it difficult to reach international agreement on. At the moment most climate driven migration and displacement is internal. People don’t cross borders

This means that often the way governments deal with this issue is a matter of domestic policy. The best way to protect the rights and welfare of people on the move is through improvements to domestic laws and practices. Where people do cross borders, it is most often between neighbouring countries in the global south. This means that the most promising option for protecting people may well be a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

Alternative spaces and possibilities

There are also several other global fora where the issue of climate-driven mobility is being discussed and agreed upon. There are international agreements that cover some aspects of climate-driven displacement that already exist

For example the Platform on Disaster Displacement brings states together to look at how they are going to address cross border disaster displacement. It has produced a voluntary ‘protection agenda’ that sets how states should protect the rights of displacees

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement already commit many states to protecting and respecting the human rights of people who have been displaced internally. It creates a refugee-like status for people who haven’t crossed a border. The Sendai Framework set out how governments can reduce the risks created by disasters – including the risk of displacement driven by increasingly intense climate related events like typhoon strikes, flash flooding and wildfires. Various court cases and rulings are beginning to clarify and shift the responsibilities that governments have when people are forced to move because of climate change.



Climate driven mobility doesn’t exist in a global policy vacuum the way it did 10 years ago. It’s likely that the solutions will come from a patchwork of agreements and policies rather than one grand global agreement.

COP is part of that – and an important part. It’s not moving fast enough or being bold enough. But it’s also not the only show in town. The other pieces of the patchwork are important too – and deserve as much attention as COP.




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