GENEVA — Two U.N. agencies reported on Wednesday that children who grow up in countries least responsible for the world’s overspent carbon budget suffer twice as many health problems as wealthier nations that pollute the most.
No single country is doing enough to protect children’s health by safeguarding the environment, according to a peer-reviewed 54-page report in the Lancet scientific journal written by a commission of 40 child and adolescent health experts organized by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
“Despite dramatic improvements in survival, nutrition, and education over recent decades, today’s children face an uncertain future,” the report begins. “Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country.”
Adopted in 2015, the United Nations’ 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 remain a long ways from being fulfilled by most countries around the world, according to the report. Health-wise, it said, businesses that market fast food and sugary drinks to children have contributed to an 11-fold increase in childhood obesity over four decades, rising to 124 million in 2016 up from 11 million in 1975.
Commission co-chair Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and ex-head of the U.N. Development Program, said global efforts to improve child and adolescent health stalled in the past two decades and are now set to go in reverse.
“It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty,” Clark said in a statement from the U.N. health agency. “But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures.”
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Per capita, a changed emissions picture
Norway, South Korea, the Netherlands, France and Ireland were the top five in the report’s rankings of 180 nations for health data on children’s survival rates, well-being, health, education and nutrition. All of these countries were considered the best places for children to flourish in their first years of life. Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia, Niger, and Mali were the bottom five nations.
But when the nations’ per capita carbon emissions were taken into account, Burundi, Chad and Somalia topped the list and the United States, Australia and Saudi Arabia were among the nations at the bottom. Norway fell to 156; the Netherlands dipped to 160 and South Korea plunged to 166 — each of which emit 210 percent more carbon than their 2030 targets.
Albania, Armenia, Grenada, Jordan, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uruguay and Vietnam were the only countries that performed relatively well for child health measures and were on track to beat their CO2 per-capita emissions targets for 2030, the commission said.
It recommended that governments form cross-sector coalitions to overcome ecological and commercial pressures, with the aim of ensuring that children receive their “rights and entitlements” now, and, consequently, are able to inherit a healthy planet in the future.
“More than 2 billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change,” said commission co-chair Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Senegal’s health minister and former executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.
“While some of the poorest countries have among the lowest CO2 emissions, many are exposed to the harshest impacts of a rapidly changing climate,” she said. “Promoting better conditions today for children to survive and thrive nationally does not have to come at the cost of eroding children’s futures globally.”