Overconsumption in the world’s richest countries is destroying the environment for children around the world, says new report

FLORENCE/NEW YORK, May 24, 2022 – The majority of wealthy countries create unhealthy, dangerous and harmful conditions for children around the world, according to the latest bulletin released today by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti.

Innocenti report 17: Places and spaces compared how 39 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) are succeeding in providing healthy environments for children. The report presents indicators such as exposure to harmful pollutants, including toxic air, pesticides, humidity and lead; access to light, green spaces and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to the climate crisis, resource consumption and e-waste dumping.

The report says that if everyone in the world consumed resources at the same rate as people in OECD and EU countries, the equivalent of 3.3 earths would be needed to keep up with consumption levels. If everyone were to consume resources at the rate that Canadians, Luxembourgers and the United States do, it would take at least five earths.

While Spain, Ireland and Portugal top the overall ranking, all OECD and EU countries fall short of providing healthy environments for all children on all indicators. Some of the wealthiest countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States, have a severe and widespread impact on the global environment – based on CO2 emissions, electronic waste and consumption resources per capita – and also rank low overall on creating a healthy environment for children within their borders. In contrast, the less wealthy OECD and EU countries of Latin America and Europe have a much smaller impact on the rest of the world.

“Not only do the majority of wealthy countries fail to provide healthy environments for children within their borders, but they also contribute to the destruction of children’s environments in other parts of the world,” he said. Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. . “In some cases, we see countries providing relatively healthy environments for children at home while being among the top contributors to pollutants destroying children’s environments abroad.”

Additional findings include:

  • More than 20 million children in this group of countries have elevated blood lead levels. Lead is one of the most dangerous environmental toxic substances.
  • Finland, Iceland and Norway rank in the top third for providing a healthy environment for their children, but rank in the bottom third for the world as a whole, with high rates of emissions, electronic waste and of consumption.
  • In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and the UK, 1 in 5 children are exposed to dampness and mold at home; while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey, more than one in four children are exposed.
  • Many children breathe toxic air both outside and inside their homes. Mexico has one of the highest numbers of years of healthy life lost to air pollution at 3.7 years per thousand children, while Finland and Japan have the lowest at 0.2 years.
  • In Belgium, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland, more than 1 in 12 children is exposed to heavy pesticide pollution. Pesticide pollution has been linked to cancer, including childhood leukemia, and can harm children’s nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, blood and immune systems.

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

  1. Governments at national, regional and local level must take the lead in improving the environment for children today, reducing waste, air and water pollution, and ensuring quality neighborhoods.
  2. Improve environments for the most vulnerable children. Children from poor families tend to be more exposed to environmental damage than children from wealthier families. This reinforces and amplifies existing disadvantages and inequalities.
  3. Ensure that environmental policies are child-friendly. Governments and decision-makers must ensure that children’s needs are taken into account in decision-making. Adult decision-makers at all levels, from parents to politicians, must listen to their views and take them into account when designing policies that will disproportionately affect future generations.
  4. Involving children, the main actors of tomorrow: Children will be confronted with today’s environmental problems for the longest time; but they are also the least capable of influencing the course of events.
  5. Governments and businesses should take effective action now to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Adapting to climate change should also be at the forefront of actions governments and the global community, and in various sectors, from education to infrastructure.

“We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to create better places and spaces for children to thrive,” Olsson said. “Increasing waste, harmful pollutants and the depletion of natural resources are harming the physical and mental health of our children and threatening the sustainability of our planet. We must pursue policies and practices that preserve the natural environment on which children and young people depend most.


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