No child left behind

1st March 2019


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Omar Ezzet

Climate change is destroying young lives – and disproportionately impacts the most marginalised and vulnerable. Meghna Das shares the work UNICEF is doing to combat the effects of environmental degradation on the world's children

Climate change and environmental degradation are already harming children and undermining their rights, especially the most disadvantaged. Unless action is taken now, much of the progress made for children during the past decades will be undermined.

The rising number of climate-influenced disasters, such as hurricanes, droughts and floods, is impacting children the most – both immediately (rising temperatures affecting health, increased vector-borne and water-borne diseases, loss of education due to destruction of schools, etc) and in the longer-term (opportunities and livelihoods disturbed). Increasing global air pollution is leading to respiratory conditions and other health problems, while chemicals, waste, polluted water and a lack of clean, green areas for children to play safely in are adding to the burden.

Environmental degradation exacerbates inequality, disproportionately impacting the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalised children and families. It deepens existing inequality and perpetuates it over generations. The most disadvantaged children are most likely to live in poor and degrading environments, such as those that are highly prone to flooding or droughts. Despite facing some of the most immediate dangers associated with environmental degradation and climate change, they have the fewest resources for coping.

Environmental degradation undermines the rights of a child to health, food, water, clean air, education, protection and survival. More than one in four deaths in children under five are attributable to unhealthy environments, and the top five causes of death in children under five are linked to the environment. Every year, environmental risks such as air pollution, unsafe water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene take the lives of 1.7 million children under five (World Health Organization (WHO) report – 'Don't pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children's health', 'Inheriting a sustainable world: Atlas on children's health and the environment').

Sustainability for every child

The definition of sustainability from the Brundtland Report (1987) set the standard for sustainable development as we know it today: “Sustainability or sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.“

When we talk about 'future generations', we're talking about the children of today and of the future. At UNICEF, we know how central children are to sustainable development, including environmental sustainability, and effective responses to environmental degradation (including climate change) are central to our mission to realise the rights of every child – especially the most vulnerable. This recognition is guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC), the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030). To that effect, in the new UNICEF Strategic Plan (2018-2021), we have committed to work so that every child lives in a clean and safe environment.

Advocacy and accountability

UNICEF will be a strong advocate for the rights, voices, and vulnerabilities of children to be central to climate and environmental planning, locally, nationally, and globally. We will use our influence, reach and expertise in more than 190 countries to support governments' efforts to reach their commitments, and to help develop more ambitious programmes that protect children from the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.

We will also work to strengthen the engagement of young people in actions related to climate change. One example of this is our campaign to improve air quality in the UK. One third of all children in the UK live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution, and children are breathing in toxic air in more than 70% of UK towns and cities. This can harm their lungs, damage their brain development and stunt their growth – and could leave them with lasting problems such as asthma.

Children are often most exposed on the school run and when they're at school (Unicef UK report, 'The toxic school run'). Despite being the least responsible for polluting the air, children are often the most vulnerable.

Every child has the right to the best possible health and a clean environment (Article 24 of the UNCRC). Accordingly, Unicef UK launched a campaign asking the UK government to establish a ring-fenced funding pot to help keep children safe from toxic air where they live, learn and play. So far, more than 1,000 schools and youth groups and nearly 25,000 people have signed up to take action to support action against toxic air; almost 3,000 children have sent us campaign postcards, calling on the Secretary of State to take action on air pollution.

Strengthening resilience

UNICEF is providing children and communities with the tools to cope with environmental degradation, both by reducing impacts on children and by increasing opportunities to participate in the green economy. This includes strengthening early warning systems for extreme climate events; developing more climate resilient WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), such as the use of remote sensing to identify water sources; aquifer-recharge systems that capture water during the monsoon season, purify it and store it underground for use when there is scarcity; cyclone and flood-proof schools; climate and environment education and awareness-raising; and youth-led energy innovation hubs (skills and training for green jobs) through initiatives such as the recently launched Generation Unlimited. We also want to strengthen air quality monitoring systems in order to draw attention to air pollution, and to design solutions that reduce children's exposure.

UNICEF promotes the use of sustainable energy to both reduce emissions and provide more climate-resilient service delivery. Examples include electrification of health facilities and schools with renewable energy solutions, such as solar systems for cold chain equipment; lighting, cooling and heating in schools; and support for use of fuel-efficient cook stoves in households to reduce air pollution and emissions.

Partnering for a purpose

To work effectively on environmental sustainability issues affecting children, UNICEF is working to strengthen existing and new partnerships – not just with governments, civil society and youth organisations, but also with the private sector. For example, partnerships with key private sector partners such as Unilever have helped provide millions of children and families with cleaner, safer toilets; through our M&S partnership, UNICEF was involved in its first ever carbon offset programme, providing improved cookstoves to families in Bangladesh; and the contribution of Eleva Foundation is helping to provide clean water to children and families in Zimbabwe through a solar water pumping programme.

Improving UNICEF's own sustainability

UNICEF believes in 'walking the talk' by working to incorporate sustainability into its own operations. This includes the use of energy efficiency, renewable energy and disaster-resilient construction, as well as continuous improvements to its emissions, and constant monitoring.

UNICEF is taking all these steps to support tomorrow's generation and enable more children around the world have safer, secure futures in the face of a changing climate.


  • Globally, more than half a billion children live in extremely high flood-risk zones, and more than 160 million live in high or extremely high drought-risk zones (UNICEF report: Unless We Act Now).
  • Approximately 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic levels of outdoor air pollution. There is increasing evidence that air pollution is affecting children's cognitive development (UNICEF report: Clear the Air for children).
  • Some 600 million children – one in four children worldwide – will be living in areas with extremely limited water resources by 2040 (UNICEF report: Thirsting for Future)

Meghna Das is senior programme specialist – sustainability at UNICEF UK.

Image credit: iStock | Unicef/Dawe | Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/UNICEF

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