FLORENCE/NEW YORK, May 24, 2022 – The majority of wealthy countries create unhealthy, dangerous and unhealthy conditions for children around the world, according to the latest Report Card released today by the UNICEF research office – Innocenti.
Innocenti Testimony 17: Places and Spaces compares how 39 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) countries perform in providing healthy environments for children. The report includes indicators such as exposure to harmful pollutants including toxic air, pesticides, moisture and lead; access to light, green space and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to the climate crisis, resource consumption and e-waste disposal.
The report finds that if everyone in the world were consuming resources as fast as people in OECD and EU countries, it would take the equivalent of 3.3 earths to keep up with consumption levels. If everyone were to use up resources as quickly as the people of Canada, Luxembourg and the United States, you would need at least five Earths.
While Spain, Ireland and Portugal top the overall rankings, not all OECD and EU countries manage to provide healthy environments for all children across all indicators. Some of the wealthiest countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States, have severe and far-reaching impacts on the global environment – based on CO2 emissions, e-waste and total resource consumption per capita – and also rank at the bottom of the performing bands overall a healthy environment for children within their boundaries. In contrast, the least prosperous OECD and EU countries in Latin America and Europe have a much smaller impact on the rest of the world.
“Not only do the majority of rich countries fail to provide children with a healthy environment within their borders, they also contribute to the destruction of the environment of children in other parts of the world,” said Gunilla Olsson, director of the UNICEF Research Office – Innocenti . “In some cases, we see countries that provide relatively healthy environments for children at home while being among the top contributors to pollutants destroying children’s environments abroad.”
Other insights are:
- Over 20 million children in this group of countries have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead is one of the most dangerous environmental toxins.
- Finland, Iceland and Norway rank in the top third when it comes to providing a healthy environment for their children, but rank in the bottom third in a global comparison with high rates of emissions, e-waste and consumption.
- In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and the UK, one in five children is exposed to damp and mold at home; while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey more than 1 in 4 children are exposed.
- Many children breathe toxic air both outside and inside their homes. Mexico has one of the highest number of years of healthy life lost to air pollution at 3.7 years per thousand children, while Finland and Japan have the lowest at 0.2 years.
- In Belgium, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland, more than 1 in 12 children are exposed to high levels of pesticide exposure. Pesticide pollution has been linked to cancer, including childhood leukemia, and can damage children’s nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, blood and immune systems.
UNICEF calls for the following steps to protect and improve the environment around children:
- Governments at the national, regional and local levels must take the lead today in improving children’s environments by reducing waste, air and water pollution and ensuring quality housing and neighborhoods.
- Improve the environment for the most vulnerable children. Children in poor families tend to be more exposed to environmental damage than children in wealthier families. This entrenches and reinforces existing disadvantages and injustices.
- Ensure environmental policies are child sensitive. Governments and policy makers should ensure that children’s needs are included in decision-making. Adult decision-makers at all levels, from parents to politicians, need to listen to their perspectives and consider them when designing policies that will disproportionately affect future generations.
- Engage children, the key stakeholders of the future: Children will be exposed to today’s environmental challenges the longest; but they are also the least able to influence the course of events.
- Governments and businesses should take effective action now to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Adaptation to climate change should be a priority for both governments and the global community, and in various fields from education to infrastructure.
“We owe it to ourselves and future generations to create better places and spaces for children to thrive,” Olsson said. “Waste, harmful pollutants and depleted natural resources take their toll on the physical and mental health of our children and threaten the sustainability of our planet. We must have policies and practices that protect the natural environment on which children and young people depend most.”