Environmental Determinants of Migration: Air Pollution in Developing Nations

Mohammad Al Abbas, Research Affiliate, Institute for Migration Studies, LAU 


The concept of climate refugees is a modern and recent definition of those fleeing progressive or sudden environmental degradation and climate disaster. Climate refugees have a wealth of literature documenting the relationship between environmental quality and migration to attest to their validity. This literature often suggests that change in environmental quality can induce migration. Yet, the majority of this literature focuses on climate refugees fleeing sudden environmental disasters or extreme weather such as floodsdroughts, and global warming. This focus has made research on climate refugees fleeing progressive environmental degradation such as air pollution quite scarce. The scarcity of scholarly efforts has caused the latter group of climate refugees to become less visible and in turn, receive less global attention.

Despite this, air pollution is seen as the most tangible measure of man-made environmental degradation and pollution. An ever-growing body of literature has shown a causal link between air pollution and a myriad of health and economic dimensions. Particularly, mortality rateshospitalization rateshealth expenditureslabor productivity, and income. These discoveries and causal links demonstrate the true hidden cost of human activity and pollution on both climate change and the sustainability of mankind. However, despite the extensive works on establishing these links, the effects of air pollution on migratory flows have remained, largely, an unexplored avenue within environmental research. The little that has been explored uncovered potential linkages between air pollution and migration decisions, unveiling new insight into the cost of man-made environmental degradation. 

Linking Air Pollution and Migration

One such example is China, where scientists found that air pollution is largely responsible for changes in migratory flows. Their model depicted a 2.8% increase in out-migration of a county/city for every 10% increase in air pollution concentration. Although these effects varied based on a migrant’s marital status, age, educational level, and other social demographic dimensions – save for gender. In other words, regardless of their gender identity, individuals of similar backgrounds often reacted in similar ways towards environmental quality. Additionally, it was discovered that mid-age adults of both genders are willing to split across counties to protect vulnerable members of the household (often the children). Their study provides a real and substantial causal link between progressive environmental degradation and migratory decisions. Similar studies conducted in Iran and Vietnamarrived at similar conclusions as that of China.

At What Cost? 

Many believe that a significant population of migrants would be willing to tolerate higher levels of pollution in favor of economic gain. Specifically, in developing countries where environmental regulations are lax and energy production is usually dependent on cheap and polluting sources. Consider Mongolia’s booming capital Ulaanbaatar, widely considered one of the most pollutedcapitals in the world. Pollution within Ulaanbaatar is credited to its valley terrain that entraps air pollution and particulate matter as well as the large coal-based industry within the city. Given the, at times, unbreathable nature of Ulaanbaatar’s air, one would assume that the population in general, and migrants in specific would be wary of traveling or settling within the capital. However, to date, most internal migration within Mongolia flows to the capital. The flow continues despite increasing environmental degradation due to the economic opportunities found within the capital. Therefore, unlike previous conclusions that might have hinted at a direct causal relationship between migratory decisions and environmental risk, in the case of Ulaanbaatar, the potential of economic gains can override one’s thresholds.

The belief and practice of tolerating environmental risks at the cost of one’s health (in favor of economic gain) is simply usustainable. Once again, consider the case of China – the majority of those migrating away from centers of pollution were young professionals. Given that the majority of the labor force in developing countries is formed of junior professionals, then increased environmental precariousness can jeopardize the sustainability of a strong labor force. Therefore, continued environmental degradation can chip away at the human capital investments of a government in the long run. Indicating that the true cost of short-term economic booms at the price of degrading environmental quality would likely lead to a fractured human capital and the migration of young professionals. Additionally, the ramifications of air pollution extend beyond the labor force to the existence and continued growth of cities. A city or metropolitan area can only continue to grow and sustain itself through the consistent turnover of economic profits, industrialization, and strong human capital. However, if the human capital is aging with younger generations opting to escape pollution, then such cities could stagnate in growth or even reverse and progressively decline. The lesson we can learn from studies conducted in China is that air pollution undermines investment in human capital as new students and trained professionals might leave urban areas or their countries of origin for, literally, greener pastures.

Concluding Remarks

Considering that China has been experiencing an industrial boom for a longer period than most developing countries, then we can use China’s experience as a forewarning. Towards this end, some policy implications can be drawn from existing studies in terms of regional economic development and environmental regulation. Many developing countries might fear the negative implications of tighter environmental regulations on their economic growth, in specific a drop in investments. However, given the effects of environmental degradation in general and air pollution in particular on the labor force, increased regulations might boost and insulate economic growth in the long term by increasing the labor supply. Yet, the design of these environmental regulations must afford a balance between industrialization and environmental quality. Striking such a balance might be a difficult task as no universal solution can account for the myriad of cultural and industrial distinctions across all developing countries. Therefore, moving forward there is a need to begin investigating the effect of environmental quality on migratory movements at the regional levels of developing nations.