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Environment, disasters and climate change

For millions of people, climate-fueled crises are already a devastating reality that is driving new displacement and making life more precarious for people already uprooted from their homes.
UNHCR is stepping up its commitment to meet the humanitarian and protection challenges already being amplified by the climate emergency and to mitigate and prepare for those to come.

Climate change and the environment has a big impact on our work at UNHCR, as well as the lives of millions of forcibly uprooted people around the world.

Many of them rely on the environment for survival, particularly during emergencies – for food, shelter, energy, fire and warmth, medicine, agriculture, income-generation activities and more. Unsustainable use of natural resources can lead to environmental degradation, with lasting impacts on natural resources and on the well-being of the displaced and host communities. Additionally, competition over scarce natural resources, such as firewood, water and grazing land, can lead to friction.

Since the 1990s, we have become increasingly committed to protecting the environment and tackling the environmental challenges associated with hosting a large population in a small area. Over the course of the last two decades, we have set in place programmes and initiatives aimed at improving sustainable environmental management, aiming to reduce environmental degradation and enhance the resources available to the displaced, as well as host communities.

Disasters and climate change are a growing concern. Since 2009, an estimated one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, with an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events since 2008 (GRID 2018). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN's science advisory board, projects an increase in the number of displaced over the course of this century. The majority of the people of concern to UNHCR are concentrated in the most vulnerable areas around the world. Climate change will force people into increasing poverty and displacement, exacerbating the factors that lead to conflict, rendering both the humanitarian needs and responses in such situations even more complex. We are deeply concerned about the massive protection challenges raised by disasters and climate-related displacement, and work with other agencies and a range of partners to protect those at risk.

UNHCR’s role in Climate Action

In January 2020, the High Commissioner for Refugees appointed Andrew Harper as the Special Advisor on Climate Action. He drives UNHCR’s engagement on the climate emergency, serves as a global advocate, and is responsible for providing oversight and expertise to shape UNHCR's climate action agenda.

Our climate action is focused on three main areas:

1. Law and policy

Providing legal advice, guidance and support to the international community to develop enhanced protection for refugees and other people displaced in the context of disasters and climate change, and catalyzing international discussions on their rights.

2. Operations

We strive to improve the predictability of our engagement to anticipate and prepare for emergencies brought on by climate-related and other natural hazards, including through strong partnerships. We are committed to reducing environmental degradation in displacement settings and enhancing the preparedness and resilience of displaced people and host communities to the effects of climate change.

Learn more about the Refugee Environmental Protection Fund, which will invest in impactful reforestation and clean cooking programs in climate-vulnerable refugee situations around the world.

We incorporate climate and environmental considerations in our operational responses. We are also working to “green” our end-to-end supply chain and to improve our supply planning, as well as the sourcing, contents, manufacturing process, procurement and delivery and lifecycle management of core relief items and other UNHCR goods.

Learn more about how we are greening our supply chain through reducing carbon emissions and using more recycled materials: UNHCR Sustainable supply strategy.

3. UNHCR’s environmental footprint

Improving UNHCR’s environmental sustainability by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing negative impacts on the environment. A key part of this work is converting diesel and fossil fuel-run offices to solar energy, with this project funded through the Green Financing Facility.

The Green Companion

In line with the UNHCR Strategic Framework for Climate Action and Operational Strategy for Climate Resilience and Environmental Sustainability, embedding environmental considerations in sectoral interventions plays a crucial role to ameliorate anticipated climate change impacts, improve overall natural resources management and reduce the impact of sectoral responses on the environment.

The Green Companion can be used in a wide variety of contexts that UNHCR is operating and should be adapted to each unique context. The Green Companion offers UNHCR personnel and partners practical appraisal tools, case studies and innovative steps to explore the potential options for reducing the environmental impacts in key sectoral areas of settlement planning, shelter, WASH and energy, including clean cooking.

The Green Companion aims to support:

  • the mainstreaming of environmental considerations in key sectoral responses;
  • the reduction of the environmental impact of UNHCR’s programming; and
  • the adaptation and utilization of local solutions to complex environmental questions.

It is hoped that the document will prove useful with regard to promoting the principle of “do no harm” within humanitarian settings, geared towards the realization of positive protection and environmental outcomes.

You can read The Green Companion as an interactive Storymap or as a PDF. The PDF is also linked at the bottom of the Storymap.

The Green Companion Storymap

The Green Companion PDF

Climate change is a risk multiplier, driving displacement and protection needs around the world. Learn more about UNHCR’s response to the growing global climate emergency. 

Read UNHCR’s Strategic Framework for Climate Action

In photos: Battling the elements in Chad

23 November 2005

Over 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Darfur, crossing the border into the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, we have managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.