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Climate change threatens children's future, report says

A landmark report evaluates 180 countries and finds glaring deficiencies that hurt children and the environment.

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Climate change and carbon emissions threaten the health of children worldwide.

Orlando Sierra/Getty

The health of children worldwide is threatened by a warming planet and the degradation of ecosystems, along with conflict, inequality and predatory marketing practices, according to a landmark report publishing Wednesday in prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

"A Future for the World's Children?" was written by a commission of over 40 scientists and experts convened by the journal, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund. The 54-page report outlines a potential reversal in the improvement to children's health seen in the last two decades across the world, driven by factors such as climate change, and stresses an immediate response to current threats that jeopardize children's future.

"While there have been substantial worldwide improvements in children's nutrition, health and education over the past 50 years, the well-being of all children is now seriously threatened by climate change, ecological degradation and conflict," says Stephen Lincoln, an emeritus professor at the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute.

As part of the report, the commission developed a new index of 180 countries comparing how children (up to 18 years old) survive and thrive. The experts first compiled a "flourishing" index looking at a child's ability to survive, based on access to health services, hygiene and lack of poverty; and to thrive, based on measures of education, nutrition and protection from violence.

Using data gathered from the 180 nations enabled the researchers to calculate a "flourishing index" which shows many high income nations, like Norway, South Korea and the Netherlands, perform well. Low-income nations, particularly those that have experienced ongoing conflict, rank poorly.

But the key to sustainability is looking to the future. A secondary measure developed by the team, the Sustainability Index, ranks countries based on their per capita carbon emissions compared, calculating the excess emissions likely to be spewed relative to the 2030 target.

Although children in high-income countries have the best chance of surviving and thriving today, those nations are doing the least to contribute to global sustainability and, as a result, may cause greater damage to children in the future. The US and Australia rank in the bottom 10 on the Sustainability Index, coming in at 173 and 174 respectively. The UK is ranked at 133.

The top and bottom 10 countries based on child flourishing and sustainability.

The Lancet

The modeling presented in the report relies on data -- and the authors acknowledge the gaps and difficulty in sourcing from some countries. They highlight the urgent need for additional collection of data and analysis, to shore up their models. However, past assessments have revealed similar outcomes.

A wide-ranging study, published by The Lancet in November, provided an overview of the world a child born today would inherit if we continue down the path we're currently on. In that piece, the authors suggest the "business-as-usual" approach will see temperatures rise by an average of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), which is likely to expose a child today to more heatwaves, more wildfires, more infectious disease and less food security.

"This rigorous study married the voices of children with global metrics," says Liz Hanna, chair for the Environmental Health Working Group at the World Federation of Public Health Associations. "It further explains why the world's children are uprising, demanding governments protect their future."

Climate crisis demonstrations, driven largely by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and youth movements around the world, have become more frequent and urgent in the last two years. Thunberg was named Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2019, with the publication calling the 17-year-old the "most compelling voice on the most important issue facing the planet."

"Countries need to overhaul their approach to child and adolescent health, to ensure that we not only look after our children today but protect the world they will inherit in the future," said Helen Clark, former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and co-chair of the commission.

Climate was not the only threat analyzed by the commission. The study also takes aim at harmful marketing practices targeted toward children, promoting alcohol, fast foods and sugary drinks. The research highlights the mountain of potentially harmful advertising children are exposed to, promoting products like e-cigarettes and gambling.

In addition, it shows the way distribution channels have changed over time. It's no longer just TV to be wary of, but social media and so-called "kidfluencers" are finding new ways to insidiously market products to children. The effect of these emerging advertising strategies -- and social media networks -- on children's development and well-being are still poorly understood.

"The various governments and regulators responsible need to impose restrictions that truly protect children," said Peter Sly, co-author and director of the children's health and environment program at the University of Queensland, Australia, in a press release. "Self-regulation is not working and did not work with the tobacco industry."