One billion children at ‘extremely high’ risk from the impacts of the climate crisis

‘The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children's Climate Risk Index' is the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from the perspective of children, produced by UNICEF in collaboration with Fridays for Future; Greta Thunberg is among the authors of the report's foreword.

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© UNICEF/UN055819/Sokhin

According to a UNICEF report launched on 20 August, young people living in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are most at risk from the impacts of climate change, which threaten their health, education and protection and expose them to life-threatening diseases.

‘The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index’ is the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from the perspective of children. It ranks countries according to children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks, such as cyclones and heat waves, as well as their vulnerability to these shocks, based on their access to essential services.

Launched in partnership with Fridays for Future on the third anniversary of the youth-led global climate protest movement, the report finds that around 1 billion children – nearly half of the world’s 2.2 billion children – live in one of 33 countries classified as ‘extremely high risk’. These children face a lethal combination of exposure to multiple climate and environmental shocks along with high vulnerability due to inadequate essential services, such as water and sanitation, health care and education. The findings show the number of children affected today – figures that are likely to worsen as the impacts of climate change accelerate.

The Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI) reveals that:

240 million children are highly exposed to coastal flooding;
330 million children are highly exposed to river flooding;
400 million children are highly exposed to cyclones;
600 million children are heavily exposed to vector-borne diseases;
815 million children are heavily exposed to lead pollution;
820 million children are heavily exposed to heat waves;
920 million children are heavily exposed to water scarcity;
1 billion children are heavily exposed to extremely high levels of air pollution.

While nearly all of the world’s children are at risk from at least one of these climate and environmental hazards, data reveal that the countries most affected face multiple and often overlapping shocks that threaten to erode development progress and exacerbate child deprivation. An estimated 850 million children – 1 in 3 worldwide – live in areas where at least four of these climate and environmental shocks overlap. As many as 330 million children – 1 in 7 worldwide – live in areas affected by at least five major shocks.

“For the first time, we have a complete picture of where and how children are vulnerable to climate change. This picture is dire, in an almost unimaginable way. Climate and environmental shocks are undermining the full spectrum of children’s rights, from access to clean air, safe food and water, education, shelter, freedom from exploitation and even their right to survive. Virtually no child’s life will be unaffected,” said Henrietta Fore, Director-General of UNICEF. “For three years, children have been speaking out around the world to demand action. UNICEF supports their calls for change with an unmistakable message: the climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis.”

The report also reveals a gap between where greenhouse gas emissions are generated and where children are experiencing the most significant climate-related impacts. The 33 ‘extremely high risk’ countries collectively emit only 9% of global CO2 emissions. The 10 countries with the highest emissions together produce almost 70% of global emissions. Only one of these countries is classified as ‘extremely high risk’ in the index.

© UNICEF/UN055824/Sokhin

“Climate change is deeply inequitable: no child is responsible for rising global temperatures, but they will pay the highest costs and children in less responsible countries will suffer the most,” Fore said. “But there is still time to act. Improving children’s access to essential services, such as water and sanitation, health and education, can significantly increase their ability to survive these climate dangers. UNICEF urges governments and businesses to listen to children and prioritise actions that protect them from impacts, while accelerating work to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Without the urgent action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, children will continue to suffer more. Compared to adults, children need more food and water per unit of body weight, are less able to survive extreme weather events and are more susceptible to toxic chemicals, temperature changes and disease, among other factors.

“The youth climate activist movements will continue to grow and fight for what is right, because we have no other choice,” said Farzana Faruk Jhumu (Bangladesh), Eric Njuguna (Kenya), Adriana Calderón (Mexico) and Greta Thunberg (Sweden) of Fridays for Future, who wrote the foreword to the report and join in supporting its launch. “We need to know where we stand, address climate change as a crisis, which it is, and act with the urgency needed to ensure that today’s children inherit a livable planet.”

UNICEF calls on governments, businesses and stakeholders to:

  1. Increase investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children. To protect children, communities and the most vulnerable from the worst impacts of an already changing climate, key services must be repurposed, including water, sanitation, health and education services.
  2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, comprehensive and urgent action is needed. Countries must reduce their emissions by at least 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 to keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  3. Providing children with climate education and green skills that are crucial for their adaptation and preparedness for the effects of climate change. Children and young people will face all the devastating consequences of the climate crisis and water insecurity, yet they are least responsible for them. We have a duty to all young people and future generations.
  4. Include young people in all national, regional and international climate negotiations and decisions, including at COP26. Children and young people must be included in all climate-related decision-making processes.
  5. Ensure that recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is green, low-carbon and inclusive, so that the ability of future generations to address and respond to the climate crisis is not compromised.
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