By Vicky Kelberer
What is bad for human development is good for the planet: A recent scientific study found that a climate-harming chemical, nitrogen dioxide, decreased from 2010 to 2014 in politically insecure areas, including Syria and Greece, but increased in refugee host countries taking in large numbers of people fleeing from conflict.
A recent study published in Science Advances evaluated climate data over a 10-year period to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an emission created by the burning of fossil fuels (primarily in personal vehicles) and other combustion processes. NO2 contributes to ozone depletion, among other harmful effects, and has generally been trending upward worldwide since scientists began monitoring levels in the 1990s. The NO2 study found that conflict-prone and politically insecure areas from the Middle East and North Africa to southern Europe had reversed these trends, shifting from consistent increases in nitrogen dioxide from 2004-2010 to significant decreases from 2010-2014. The shift is thought to be due to the economic disruptions caused by the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and the Greek economic crisis that emerged in the same time period. Meanwhile, host countries Lebanon and Jordan, where Syrian refugees make up 10-30 percent of the population, have seen a 30-40 percent increase in NO2 emissions, likely due to their growing populations.
The NO2 study highlights the intrinsic link between conflict and climate: Climate change is thought to have been a contributor to the Syrian uprising. Severe drought conditions hastened rural-to-urban migration and drove food prices up to unsustainable levels. In the wake of conflicts, NO2 levels can also serve as a proxy for the economic devastation wrought by war and other forms of instability. For the countries that are taking in a majority of refugees from the Syrian conflict, increasing NO2 levels will hurt air quality, affect emissions standards, and contribute to ozone depletion. NO2 levels can also reflect economic crises, as in Greece and Iran from 2010-2014, which were the only two other areas where NO2 levels fell. Moreover, the recent study is another illustration of the direct link between human fossil-fuel-reliant activities and global climate change and ozone depletion.
While European host countries are unlikely to experience upticks in NO2 emissions due to the refugee crisis -- in large part because refugees in Europe do not generally bring cars or other personal vehicles with them when they seek asylum -- the increases in NO2 emissions in Lebanon and Jordan indicates yet another burden to be carried by refugee host countries in the Syrian conflict. With resources already stretched to the brink by the influx of refugees from multiple regional conflicts in the past decade, it is unlikely that either country will be able to enact meaningful policies to mitigate NO2 emissions any time soon.
At the same time, ozone depletion and other manifestations of climate change will actually fuel displacement in the coming years, just as displacement has fueled climate change in the countries hosting the displaced. As climate refugees come to outnumber conflict refugees, the world will be left with a self-reinforcing cycle by which climate change causes displacement, which causes climate degradation in the regions hosting the displaced, which causes further climate change and displacement, and so on. Without an international framework for climate change mitigation or climate refugee responses, the likely result will be unprecedented refugee crises. These will make policymakers yearn for the simpler times of today’s record-breaking levels of displacement due to conflict.
Vicky Kelberer is an MA Candidate in International Affairs at the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, and a contributor to The Global Atlas, The Huffington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Parabellum Report. She also chairs the Working Group on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking at Boston University.