Quantifying the effects of climate change on wellbeing

July 26, 2016


Perhaps one of the most important environmental impacts at the moment is that of carbon emissions. Would it be a good idea to be able to quantify how many people are affected per tonne of carbon emitted? Yes it would, because this can then be used in wellbeing accounting and then managed accordingly.

Carbon emissions lead to climate change. The effects of uncontrolled climate change include drought, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises.  The figure to describe how much human wellbeing is reduced per tonne of carbon, simply isn’t available. So here is a stab at providing that figure.

The first source of data is perhaps not the most rigorous but provides enough of an idea to describe this methodology. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has worked to estimate the number of environmental refugees caused by climate change.[1] This was reported[2] in 2010 as 50 million environmental refugees by 2020. Let’s say that that is around 5 million a year from date of report. The report goes on to suggest that in certain areas of the world, such as Africa and Bangladesh, people are already leaving areas where their environment can no longer feed, water or shelter them. In other words they cannot satisfy their basic needs as described by Maslow. With their basic needs denied, they will also not be able to pursue higher wellbeing needs. And these effects can be linked to climate change.

OECD figures[3] indicate that in 2010, 30 x 109 tonnes of carbon were emitted in the world.

So 5 million refugees caused by 30 x 109 tonnes of carbon equates to 1 environmental refugee per 6000 tonnes of carbon.

What does this mean? Well, for example, the UK emits 831 million tonnes of carbon. Using the figure above, this equates to 0.14 million environmental refugees caused by UK emissions. If we were concerned with not causing refugees, who may even seek to come to our shores, then we have three choices:

  1. Reduce our emissions such that zero refugees are caused by us
  2. Compensate refugees by providing food, water and shelter e.g by providing aid or by allowing them to immigrate in proportion to the UK’s carbon emission rate
  3. A combination of the two.

So, there you have it. A way to convert carbon emissions into a wellbeing measure. It would be useful if bodies such as UN or OECD produced annual projections for environmental refugees to reflect the impacts that carbon emissions have on human wellbeing. Furthermore governments around the world should align their carbon reduction, foreign aid and immigration policies to suit.


[1] UNHCR, 2012, Protecting People Crossing Borders in the Context of Climate Change Normative Gaps and Possible Approaches

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/22/environmental-refugees-50_n_826488.html First Posted: 02/22/11 02:29 PM

[3] OECD, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/factbook-2013-en/09/02/01/index.html?itemId=/content/chapter/factbook-2013-70-en

Richard Lupo

Richard Lupo

Areas of expertise: developing and instigating stream-lined processes to ensure environmental effectiveness