New UNICEF report shows: Greed kills

Overconsumption in the wealthiest countries leads to environmental degradation for children around the world

The majority of rich countries create life-threatening and dangerous living conditions for children around the world, according to a new report published by the Innocenti Research Center of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The report,  Places and Spaces: Environments and children’s well-being, analyzes the extent to which 39 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) offer children a healthy living environment, based on a whole series of indicators such as exposure to harmful polluting substances (air pollution, pesticides, humidity in the home, lead); access to light, green spaces and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to the climate crisis, resource consumption and generation of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE).

According to the report, if each individual on the globe lived like an inhabitant of the countries studied, it would take 3.3 planets to cover all of humanity’s needs. 

And if everyone consumed resources at the pace of a Canadian, a Luxembourger or an American, this number would increase to five.

While Spain, Ireland and Portugal are overall good performers in this ranking, none of the OECD and EU countries manage to provide healthy environments for all the world’s children on the planet.

In terms of CO2 emissions, e-waste and overall resource consumption per capita, some of the world’s wealthiest countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States have an immense impact on the global environment, and otherwise rank low on ensuring a healthy environment for children living on their own soil.

The report noted, however, that less wealthy countries in Latin America and Europe had a much less pronounced impact on the general state of the planet compared to some wealthier states studied.

While Finland, Iceland and Norway were in the lead for providing a healthy environment for their own youth, they were in last place in terms of their impact on the planet for their emissions rates, electronic waste volume and consumption level.

In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and Britain, one in five children is exposed to damp and mold in their home, while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey, more than one child out of four was affected.

“Not only do most rich countries fail to provide their own children with a healthy living environment, but worse, they contribute to the destruction of that of other children, elsewhere in the world”, said Gunilla Olsson, director of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. “Furthermore, some countries offering relatively unspoiled environments to their own youth contribute significantly to the pollution that deteriorates the living conditions of children in other countries.”

Emissions from a power plant in Köln, Germany.

The report also includes the following findings:

  • In the group of countries studied, more than 20 million children have high levels of lead in their blood. However, lead is one of the most dangerous environmental contaminants for the body.
  • Many children breathe toxic air both indoors and outdoors. Mexico thus records one of the highest number of years of life in good health lost due to atmospheric pollution (3.7 years per 1,000 children); this figure is lowest in Finland and Japan (0.2 years).
  • In Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, more than 1 in 12 children is exposed to high levels of pesticide-related pollution. In addition to being associated with the appearance of cancers, in particular leukaemias in children, these substances can also have deleterious effects on the nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, blood and immune systems of children.

Protecting and improving children’s environment

UNICEF calls for the following actions to protect and improve the environment for children:

  1. National, regional and local governments must take the lead in working now to reduce waste generation, air, and water pollution while ensuring quality housing and neighborhoods;
  2. Improve the environment of the most vulnerable children. Children from poor families are generally more exposed to environmental harm than children from wealthier families. This state of affairs deepens and confirms the inequalities and gaps that already exist;
  3. Ensure that environmental policies take children into account. Governments and decision-makers must ensure that children’s needs are integrated into decision-making processes. At all levels, adults in decision-making positions, from parents to politicians, must listen and take children’s views into account when developing policies that will have a significant impact on future generations;
  4. Involve children in thinking about the future, because they are the main stakeholders: in fact, they are the ones who will be struggling with the current environmental challenges the longest, but they are also the ones who have the least capacity to influence the course of events.
  5. Governments and businesses must act now to honor their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Adapting to climate change must also be among the priorities of governments and the international community. , in all sectors, from education to infrastructure.

“We have a duty to ourselves and to future generations to create better living environments to promote the development of children,” said Gunilla Olsson. “The accumulation of waste, the increase in pollution, and the scarcity of natural resources have a cost for the physical and mental health of our youth, as well as for the integrity of our planet. We must adopt policies and practices that respect the environment, as it constitutes the most precious heritage of children and young people”.

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