US has failed to give its kids a climate fit for their future, ranks among worst-performing countries: Report
No single country provides the conditions to both support children to live healthy lives today as well as provide an environment fit for their future, says a WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission report
The US is one of the worst-performing countries when it comes to providing a climate fit for children’s future ranking 173rd globally within the bottom 10. This, according to a landmark Commission report, which concludes that not a single country is adequately protecting children's health, their environment, and their future.
Convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and The Lancet, the Commission includes over 40 child and adolescent health experts from around the world.
The report finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change, and exploitative marketing practices that push heavily processed fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol, and tobacco at children.
“Climate disruption is creating extreme risks from rising sea levels, extreme weather events, water and food insecurity, heat stress, emerging infectious diseases, and large-scale population migration. Children have little voice in the shape of their future. Decisions that will affect their lives are taken by parents, local leaders, governments, global economic decision-makers, and by the captains of global corporations with enormous resources and purely commercial interests,” say experts in their findings published in The Lancet.
The experts say there cannot be any excuses and there is no time to lose.
“The climate emergency is rapidly undermining the future survival of all species, and the likelihood of a world in which all children enjoy their right to health appears increasingly out of reach. The power of children’s voices has emerged over the past two years as a source of hope. Their collective concerns must now be heard, and effective actions taken to prevent the next generation inheriting an irreversibly damaged planet,” says an editorial in The Lancet.
Intensifying climate change threatens every child's future
The report includes a new global index of 180 countries. The experts compare performance on child flourishing — including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition — as well as sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps.
“The Commission’s child flourishing index measures country-level performance and ranks the ability of a child to flourish, survive, and thrive in 180 countries. The index is based on sustainability projected through greenhouse gas emissions, SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) indicators, and income gaps within countries. No single country does well on the index, and many of the worst performers are also suffering from conflict or humanitarian crises — problems that are linked with climate change,” adds the editorial.
The researchers explain though many high-income countries (HICs) rank extremely highly on the flourishing (survive and thrive) index, they are near the bottom in terms of performance on contributions to global ecological sustainability, and vice versa for low-income countries (LICs).
The US, Australia, and Saudi Arabia are among the 10 worst emitters.
For example, while the US ranks 39 in the flourishing index, it ranks 173 in sustainability, with per capita carbon emissions 500% higher than the sustainability target for 2030. Similarly, Norway, South Korea, and the Netherlands are ranked first, second and third respectively in the current child flourishing list. But these countries are 156th (Norway), 166th (South Korea), and 160th (the Netherlands) on the global sustainability list — all of them with per capita carbon emissions more than 210% higher than the 2030 target.
“Therefore, the two country ranks provide us with our child flourishing and futures profile, a combination of a country’s achievement on surviving and thriving today, with the damage they might cause through greenhouse gas emissions to children in the future. While wealthy countries generally have better child health and development outcomes, their historic and current greenhouse gas emissions threaten the lives of all children,” explain researchers.
They add, “While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children's ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions — disproportionately from wealthier countries — threaten the future of all children.”
Models predict that global carbon emissions need to be reduced from 39.7 gigatonnes to 22.8 gigatonnes per year by 2030 to maintain even a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 1·5°C. “Under widely used business-as-usual scenarios, there is a 93% chance that global warming will exceed 4°C by the year 2100. This would have devastating health consequences,” says the study.
The only countries on track to beat carbon emission per capita targets by 2030, while also performing fairly (within the top 70) on child flourishing measures are Albania, Armenia, Grenada, Jordan, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uruguay, and Vietnam, shows the analysis.
The experts have called for a new global movement driven by and for the children. “The opportunity is great. The evidence is available. The tools are at hand. From heads-of-state to local government, from UN leaders to children themselves, this Commission calls for the birth of a new era for child and adolescent health. It will take courage and commitment to deliver. It is the supreme test of our generation,” says Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet family of journals.
Predatory commercial exploitation
According to the authors, a “second existential threat that is more insidious has emerged,” referring to commercial exploitation that is “encouraging harmful and addictive activities that are extremely deleterious” to young people’s health.
Evidence suggests that children around the world are enormously exposed to advertisements: the average young person in the USA sees 13000–30000 advertisements just on television each year. Similarly, youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250% in the US for over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people.
Children are the frequent targets of commercial entities promoting addictive substances and unhealthy commodities, including fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, but also alcohol and tobacco, all major causes of non-communicable diseases.
Unhealthy food advertising on television is an important contributor to childhood obesity, with attendant effects across the lifespan, says the team.
“Children's exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with the purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. The number of obese children and adolescents increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016 - an 11-fold increase, with dire individual and societal costs,” say experts.
Industry self-regulation has also failed. According to the report, studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the US — among many others — have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children.
“For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket, and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children," says Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission's authors in the analysis.