How UNICEF is addressing the climate crisis — a global emergency fueling humanitarian needs across the board — and the need to protect, prepare and prioritize children to secure a safe and sustainable future.
The climate crisis is a child rights crisis
Nearly half the world's young population — nearly 1 billion children — live in countries where risks to their health and safety due to the effects of climate change are extremely high, countries where children are exposed to serious environmental hazards, shocks and stresses.
In pushing world leaders to back accelerated action to address water scarcity and other impacts, UNICEF points to fast-approaching tipping points across ecological systems — after which there is no return.
Countries across the Horn of Africa are already suffering one of the worst climate disasters on record:
This is the first time a global generation of children will grow up in a world made far more dangerous as a result of climate change and environmental degradation
Droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events related to climate change and global warming are multiplying in frequency and ferocity, endangering communities, creating food insecurity, threatening water supplies and forcing migration — including by unaccompanied children.
In the Caribbean alone, the number of children displaced by extreme weather events has increased six-fold in the past five years.
Nearly 160 million children live in zones vulnerable to high or extremely high drought.
Over 500 million children live in extreme flood zones — breeding grounds to deadly waterborne diseases.
By 2050, it is expected that nearly all the world’s children — more than 2 billion — will be exposed to more frequent heat waves, increasing certain health risks for young children and infants.
And by 2040, 25 million more children will be malnourished due to climate change.
As temperatures rise and seasons become more unpredictable, children are increasingly aware that though they are least responsible for the unfolding environmental crisis, they are the ones who are most threatened by its impact.
Children can be empowered as agents of change
As outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the intrinsic right to a safe and clean environment. With activist Greta Thunberg and other youth sounding the alarm, UNICEF is working to amplify their voices while also advocating for more direct youth involvement in climate solutions.
UNICEF understands that children and young people have a key role to play in addressing the global climate crisis, and helps them identify solutions for their communities through education in conservation and sustainability.
“Children are essential actors in responding to the climate crisis," said Gautam Narasimhan, UNICEF Senior Advisor on Climate Change, Energy and Environment. "We owe it to them to put all our efforts behind solutions we know can make a difference, such as reducing vulnerability to disasters, improving the management of water resources and ensuring that economic development does not happen at the expense of [the environment].”
Protecting, preparing and prioritizing every child for a sustainable future
UNICEF helps communities respond to the climate crisis and build back better — working with governments at national and local levels to adapt to climate change and mitigate impacts.
The three pillars of this response are to protect, prepare and prioritize children to secure a safe, sustainable and water-secure future.
Building community resilience to future shocks
Since the early 1990s, UNICEF and partners have supported disaster preparedness and risk reduction programs to make vulnerable communities more resilient.
When disaster strikes, UNICEF focuses on delivering immediate relief to affected children and families. While helping to repair damaged infrastructure and otherwise support recovery, UNICEF also helps communities 'build back better' to prevent further damage and to protect against future impacts.
UNICEF also works with partners to advance innovations that support climate adaptation, such as solar-powered water pumps and the use of satellite imagery to map new sources of ground water.
At UNICEF's supply warehouse in Copenhagen, there is a test center for designing and building humanitarian gear such as extreme weather-proof tents to use as temporary shelters and health clinics in emergency settings.
UNICEF is responding to crises while reducing its own footprint
As UNICEF responds to emergencies around the world, it strives for efficiency and effectiveness. Carbon-neutral since 2015, UNICEF continues to look for ways to further reduce carbon emissions, water use and waste generation.
The use of drones to deliver medicine and medical supplies to remote areas has helped cut both emissions and transport time, for example. Many UNICEF country offices — including in Haiti, India, Jordan and Zimbabwe — run on solar power.
Time is running out
Scientists warn that even if the world is able to achieve specific goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is already too late to reverse some of the worst impacts of climate change.
"From historic flooding in Asia, to deadly droughts in Africa, plus the wildfires and heat waves that swept through India, Europe and North America, it is clear the climate crisis is here and it is having devastating impacts on the well-being of children and young people globally," says Paloma Escudero, UNICEF Director of Communications and Advocacy and head of UNICEF's delegation to COP27, the 2022 UN climate change conference.
"Our children can no longer count on the environmental and social conditions previous generations have been used to. They are being forced to grow in a world that is becoming far more dangerous and uncertain."
In collaboration with — and on behalf of — children and young people everywhere, UNICEF urges world leaders and country governments to:
- take immediate action to protect children from climate devastation by adapting the critical social services they rely on, such as water, health, nutrition and education; all social services must be climate-sensitive and all climate policies and plans must be child-sensitive
- implement comprehensive climate adaptation plans — one of the most effective ways of protecting children and young people from the impacts of the climate crisis now and also critical to building resilience
- deliver on COP26 commitments to double adaptation funding to $40 billion per year by 2025 at a minimum, and as a step toward committing at least $300 billion per year for adaptation by 2030. Says Escudero: "Climate adaptation funding must make up half of all climate finance."
- continue to reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy production
- revisit national climate plans and cut emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 to keep heating to no more than 1.5°C, with G20 countries taking the lead
- provide children with climate change education, green skills training and opportunities to meaningfully participate and influence climate policy-making
- prioritize the rights of children while making decisions on adaptation
- strengthen the focus on children’s climate education and empowerment and implement previous commitments to build youth capacity
- accelerate progress on loss and damage, with the survival of vulnerable children and their communities at the center of discussions
UNICEF and partners launched the Today and Tomorrow initiative in 2022 — an innovative financing platform designed to drive resources toward climate resilience, emergency preparedness, disaster response and risk reduction work. For its first three years, the mechanism will be used to direct support to eight cyclone-prone countries: Bangladesh, Comoros, Haiti, Fiji, Madagascar, Mozambique, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
"There is an inherit injustice to this," Escudero says. "Some of the countries least responsible for the climate crisis are the ones ... facing the most frequent and damaging impacts. Children from the poorest communities face the greatest risks ..., and yet often receive the least support."
UNICEF won’t stop until every child is healthy, protected, educated and respected. This means taking climate action to secure a livable, sustainable future for all. Learn more.
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