UNICEF Environmental Risk Report: We live off children

Updated on 05/24/2022 at 09:34

  • In the world’s richest countries – including Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway – children grow up in a relatively healthy environment.
  • Meanwhile, the majority of these countries contribute disproportionately to global environmental degradation, endangering the present and future of all children.
  • These are the findings of the latest report card from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

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The report “Places, Spaces. Environments and Children’s Wellbeing” states: If all people consumed the same amount as the population in the OECD and EU countries examined, then 3.3 planets like Earth would be necessary. If every human were to use as many resources as the people of Canada, Luxembourg, and the United States, then at least five of the land would be needed. In Germany, too, resource consumption is very high: at the global level, 2.9 land will be needed for the German way of life.

This UNICEF report documents how countries have been able to create a healthy and child-friendly environment for all girls and boys and ensure a healthy environment – within and beyond national borders. For this purpose, comparable data on the near and far surroundings of children from 39 OECD and European Union countries as well as data on the contribution of these countries to climate change, resource consumption and e-waste production were evaluated.

The analysis shows that no country consistently provides good environmental conditions for children in all the regions examined. Spain, Ireland and Portugal top the international rankings of countries. In turn, the three countries provide the children who live there a good environment and contribute less to global environmental problems. Germany ranks ninth and third in terms of environmental risks and global liability.

Some of the richest countries in the world – including Australia, Belgium, Canada, and the United States – have serious and far-reaching impacts on the global environment in terms of per capita carbon dioxide emissions, e-waste production, and resource consumption in general. At the same time, they are at the bottom of the international comparison when it comes to creating a healthy environment for their children. In contrast, the poorer OECD and EU countries in Latin America and Europe contribute less to global environmental problems.

“We live in many areas at the expense of today’s children and future generations”

“The majority of rich countries fail to provide a healthy environment for all children within their borders, and they contribute to the destruction of children’s habitats in other parts of the world,” said Junilla Olson, director of UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Institute in Florence. “In some cases, we find that countries that provide relatively healthy environments for children at home are also among the largest producers of pollutants destroying children’s environments in other countries.”

Facts from the UNICEF report:

  • More than 20 million children in OECD and European Union countries surveyed had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead is one of the most dangerous environmental toxins.
  • Although Finland, Iceland and Norway provide their children with a healthy environment, they have very high greenhouse gas emissions, consume a lot of resources and produce a lot of electronic waste.
  • In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and England, household surveys have revealed that one in five children is exposed to dampness and mold in the home. In Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey more than every fourth child.
  • Many children breathe toxic air indoors and outdoors. Mexico has the highest number of years of healthy life lost to air pollution, at 3.7 years per 1,000 children, while Finland and Japan have the lowest at 0.2 years. Compared to the mentioned countries, Germany is in the middle. Statistically speaking, children here lose an average of a healthy half a year of life due to air pollution.
  • In Belgium, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland, more than 1 in 12 children are exposed to high levels of pesticides. There is evidence that pesticides negatively affect children’s health in several ways.

“In many regions we live at the expense of today’s children and future generations. The report’s findings show that even in rich countries, children grow up in conditions that make them sick, impair their development and limit their life chances,” says Christian Schneider, Director-General of UNICEF Germany. “The federal government has to catch up here and can use the current G7 presidency, for example, to make decisive progress in protecting the climate and the environment – for children and young people in Germany and around the world.”

UNICEF is calling for the following steps to protect and improve the environment for children:

  • 1. Governments of the countries surveyed need to reduce waste, air and water pollution at the national, regional and local levels and provide children with quality housing and an environment in which they can thrive and fulfill their potential. This is especially true for disadvantaged children, who are often exposed to higher levels of environmental stress.
  • 2. Governments and policy makers in the countries surveyed should ensure that children’s needs are included in decision-making. At all levels, from parents to politicians, children need to be listened to and taken into account when designing policies that will affect future generations.
  • 3. Governments of the countries examined and businesses must immediately take effective measures to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Adaptation to climate change must be a top priority for both governments and the international community.

The report ‘Places and Places. Environments and Children’s Wellbeing’ builds on previous research on child well-being in UNICEF Report Cards. The UNICEF Innocenti Research Center is part of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Explores current and emerging issues related to children’s development. The aim is to provide information for the strategic direction of children’s programs and to initiate global discussions on children’s rights and development.


From peanut paste and water purification tablets to vaccines, emergency tents and bed nets, millions of children around the world benefit from these supplies each year. But the small amounts are also part of UNICEF’s relief efforts.

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