Patrick Grady and Herbert Grubel
President Biden's Climate Change and Immigration Policies at Odds
May 5, 2021

One of the first things President Biden did after taking office was to sign an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate change, signaling his intention to reduce the emission of Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) to net zero by 2050. At the same time, he signed several Executive Orders, which have encouraged undocumented immigration at our Southern border, creating a crisis with more "kids in cages" than ever under President Trump. The likely resultant humanitarian crisis and labor market problems are only one part of the story. The other, poorly understood result of this immigration will be that GHG emissions will increase massively, creating a conflict between the twin goals of climate and immigration policies, which the Biden administration needs to resolve if it seeks a coherent policy.

Consider first the effect recent immigrants have on the effectiveness of GHG emission controls. Over the period from 1990 to 2018, the US population increased 31 percent while CO2 emissions (which represent about 80 percent of all GHG emissions) increased much less by only 8.4 percent, mainly because of the increased use of gas rather than coal in the generation of electricity. This has the obvious, but striking, implication that CO2 emissions would have decreased substantially instead of increased if population growth had only been limited to the natural growth of the number of US-born citizens.

Future immigrants, whether legal or illegal, can be expected to have a similar effect on the required emission control efforts needed to reach the Paris Agreement target of net zero GHG emissions by 2050. By that year, the total population is projected by the Census Bureau to have increased 18.6 percent, of which more than one half is due to immigration.

There is another much less obvious, but even more costly effect, immigrants have directly on the world's climate. When migrants move from a low-income country to the United States, they increase their annual emissions by an amount equal to the difference between emissions in their home countries and in the United States.

Consider this effect for immigrants who came from the three Central American Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). According to World Bank data, in 2016 per-capita emissions in these important US immigrant-source countries was about 1.09 tonnes of CO2, reflecting their lower average incomes. After they settle in the United States and have much higher incomes, however, they are expected to emit an average of 15.50 tonnes of CO2. Migration is thus expected to raise their annual emissions by 14.41 tonnes per capita.

To estimate this increase for the average of all immigrants in 2016, we weighted the average emissions in their home countries by the number of migrants from each. We found that immigrants averaged 4.16 tonnes per capita in their home countries so that after they settle in the United States, their emissions into the atmosphere are expected to increase by an average 11.34 tonnes annually.

The annual increase in global emissions resulting from immigration represents only a small part of total emissions into the atmosphere because immigrants emit annually each year for as long as they live, and U.S. emissions per-capita are not decreased. The cumulative amount of these emissions is very large and while effective emission controls can reduce their magnitude, once in the atmosphere these GHG emissions affect the climate for a very long time.

While our analysis only covers one limited aspect of immigration, its implications should be obvious. Immigrants increase GHG emissions and raise the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere substantially, increase the cost of US policies to reach the zero-emissions target set by the Paris Agreement and add much to the stock of GHG in the atmosphere. President Biden owes the public an explanation of how he proposes to reach his announced net zero target while pursuing an open borders policy.