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'Unimaginably dire': half of world's children at risk of climate shock, Unicef warns

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 20/08/2021 Sarah Newey, Jennifer Rigby

(Video by Sky News)

Almost half of all children across the world live in countries at “extremely high risk” of climate and environmental shocks, according to a new report from Unicef.  

In total, roughly one billion children - nearly half of the world’s 2.2 billion - face climate-related disasters in their lifetimes, the report found. That includes anything from flooding to the emergence of new vector-borne diseases as a result of climate change.

Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau are the worst affected countries, according to Unicef’s new Children’s Climate Risk Index, the first analysis of the threat from a child’s perspective.

a man standing on top of a dirt field: A woman and child watching wildfires burn in Turkey - Yasin Akgul/AFP © Yasin Akgul/AFP A woman and child watching wildfires burn in Turkey - Yasin Akgul/AFP

Iceland, Luxembourg and New Zealand are at the other end of the scale, facing the least risk.

The UK comes in at 111th on the index of 163 countries - above the US at 80th but worse than Australia, Iceland and Ireland. Children here face a "hotter, wetter and more polluted" future, said Unicef. 

Overall, the data paints an “unimaginably dire” picture if nothing is done, according to Unicef's head, Henrietta Fore.

table: Children's Climate Change Risk Index: where is most vulnerable? (EMB 00:01 20 Aug) © Provided by The Telegraph Children's Climate Change Risk Index: where is most vulnerable? (EMB 00:01 20 Aug)

“For the first time, we have a complete picture of where and how children are vulnerable to climate change, and that picture is almost unimaginably dire,” she said.

“Climate and environmental shocks are undermining the complete spectrum of children’s rights, from access to clean air, food and safe water; to education, housing, freedom from exploitation, and even their right to survive.”

According to the report, almost every child on earth is exposed to at least one climate and environmental hazard shock or stress, and almost every single young life will have to cope with heat waves, cyclones, air pollution flooding or water scarcity to a greater or lesser extent.

File: A children's summer camp in southern Greece and an entire village was evacuated Thursday due to an approaching forest fire, fire officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit STR/AFP via Getty Images) © Getty File: A children's summer camp in southern Greece and an entire village was evacuated Thursday due to an approaching forest fire, fire officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The report, titled The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis, assesses risk based on a combination of factors, including the likelihood of climate-related events as well as children’s vulnerability to them as a result of living in poverty or without adequate housing or sanitation facilities.  

It estimates that, worldwide, one billion children are “highly exposed” to exceedingly high levels of air pollution, 820 million to heatwaves, and 600 million to vector borne diseases.

Ms Fore added that approximately one third of all children - some 850 million - are exposed to four or more environmental stresses, while nearly half live in countries at “extremely high risk” of the ramifications of climate change.

“These children face a deadly combination of exposure to multiple shocks, with high vulnerability, resulting from a lack of essential services,” she said. “The survival of these children is an imminent threat from the impacts of climate change.”

The report also highlights a disconnect between the world’s biggest emitters and the children enduring the most significant ramifications of a changing climate.

a young boy swimming in a body of water: A child being rescued in China's central Hubei province after heavy flooding in August - AFP © Provided by The Telegraph A child being rescued in China's central Hubei province after heavy flooding in August - AFP

The 33 “extremely high-risk” countries collectively emit just nine per cent of global CO2 emissions. Yet, while the 10 highest emitting countries collectively account for nearly 70 per cent of global emissions, only one of these countries is ranked as “extremely high-risk”.

In the report the UK is ranked 17th in terms of emissions, accounting for 1.05 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

“There is an inherent injustice in this…  and we are also extending this injustice to the next generation, all of whom were born into a world fully aware of the consequences of inaction,” said Ms Fore, urging global leaders to listen to young activists ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this autumn.

Greta Thunberg, probably the world’s leading youth activist on these issues, wrote the foreword to the report alongside other young climate activists including Farzana Faruk Jhumu from Bangladesh and Eric Njuguna.

“Movements of young climate activists will continue to rise, continue to grow and continue to fight for what is right because we have no other choice," they said. “We must acknowledge where we stand, treat climate change like the crisis it is, and act with the urgency required to ensure today’s children inherit a liveable planet."

Greta Thunberg (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) © AP Greta Thunberg (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

At the launch of the report, Ms Thunberg also accused Britain of "lying" about its climate credentials, and called for the threat to children's futures to be taken more seriously.

Unicef pointed out that children are at particular risk for a number of reasons: they need more food and water per unit of body weight, are less able to survive extreme weather events, and are more susceptible to things like toxic chemicals, disease and temperature changes.

The report calls for increased investment in climate adaptation; reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; more climate education for young people, as well as their inclusion in decision-making; and a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19.  

Specifically, it also wants the UK government to recognise the climate crisis as a child rights crisis, as its report title suggests, ahead of the COP26 summit. 


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