Climate Action

Climate change: half the world’s children are in high-risk areas

two boys play among some plastic pollution

Almost 90% of the world’s children are highly exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Image: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Water scarcity, air pollution, disease, heatwaves and cyclones are among the climate risks facing the world’s children, finds UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk Index.
  • Young people are more vulnerable when they lack access to essential services like water, sanitation and healthcare.
  • An estimated 850 million children live in areas with at least four overlapping climate and environmental shocks.

Almost half of the world's 2.2 billion children face a “deadly” threat from climate and environmental shocks, according to a new report.

The Children’s Climate Risk Index from UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, finds that nearly 1 billion children live in one of 33 countries most at risk.

“The survival of these children is at imminent threat from the impacts of climate change,” says UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore.

an infographic showing how access to key services increases children’s risk to climate threats.
Lack of access to key services increases children’s risk to climate threats. Image: Children’s Climate Risk Index, UNICEF
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Africa at risk

Children in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in western Africa are most at risk in UNICEF’s ranking of 163 countries, while children in New Zealand, Luxembourg and Iceland seem safest.

The Children’s Climate Risk Index ranks countries based on how exposed children are to climate and environmental shocks, like cyclones and heatwaves. It also looks at the access young people have to essential services, such as water, sanitation, healthcare and education.

In the foreword to the report, youth climate activists from Mexico, Bangladesh, Kenya and Sweden – including campaigner Greta Thunberg – note that the 33 ‘extremely high-risk’ countries collectively emit just 9% of global CO2 emissions. But the 10 highest emitting countries create nearly 70% of global emissions.

a chart showing the countries where children are most at risk
Children in the Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria are most at risk from climate change. Image: UNICEF

Key findings include:

  • Water scarcity – 920 million children are highly exposed to water scarcity. This is expected to worsen as climate change increases the frequency and severity of risks like droughts and water stress.
  • Air pollution – 2 billion children – almost 90% of the world’s children – are highly exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. If we keep burning fossil fuels, this will likely get worse, UNICEF says.
  • Disease – 600 million children are at high risk from vector-borne diseases – those transmitted by blood-feeding species – like malaria and dengue fever. This is because the changing climate better suits disease carriers like mosquitoes.
  • Heatwaves – are a high risk for 820 million children – a statistic likely to worsen as global average temperatures increase.
  • Cyclones – 400 million children are highly exposed to these tropical storms, which are expected to increase in frequency and intensity.
  • Flooding – the flooding of rivers and coasts are high risks respectively for another 330 million and 240 million children. Melting glaciers, increasing rainfall and rising sea levels will likely increase this risk.
  • Lead pollution – contaminated air, water, soil and food is putting 815 million children at risk globally.

Almost every child on Earth is exposed to at least one of these risks, UNICEF finds. But the risk to young people escalates in countries with multiple overlapping hazards. For example, areas with at least four overlapping climate and environmental shocks are home to an estimated 850 million children – 1 in 3 worldwide. And 80 million children face at least six climate and environmental hazards.

an infographic showing the overlapping stress hazards children face
For the first time, the report looks at the numbers of children living in areas that experience multiple, overlapping climate hazards. Image: UNICEF

Climate risk solutions

To counter this crisis, UNICEF says, decision-makers need to get better at listening to young people and incorporating their views and experiences in climate policies and processes. This includes involving them in all climate-related decision making, including international talks such as the COP26 UN climate summit.

Providing young people with climate education and green skills, meanwhile, will help them adapt and prepare for climate change.

At the same time, water, sanitation and hygiene systems, health, education and other key services for children need more investment to adapt them for climate change and make them more resilient. And urgent action is needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

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Climate ActionNature and BiodiversityHealth and Healthcare Systems
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