Over-consumption in the world’s richest countries is destroying children’s environments globally, new report says

The world’s richest countries – including Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway – are providing healthier environments for children within their borders, yet are disproportionately contributing to the destruction of the global environment

23 May 2022
A young girl holding up her excisise book to keep it out of the flood water
UNICEF/UN0540660/Chol

FLORENCE/NEW YORK, 24 May 2022 – The majority of wealthy countries are creating unhealthy, dangerous and noxious conditions for children across the world, according to the latest Report Card published today by UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti.

Innocenti Report Card 17: Places and Spaces compares how 39 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) fare in providing healthy environments for children. The report features indicators such as exposure to harmful pollutants including toxic air, pesticides, damp and lead; access to light, green spaces and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to the climate crisis, consumption of resources, and the dumping of e-waste.

The report states that if everybody in the world consumed resources at the rate people do 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 at which people in Canada, Luxembourg and the United States do, at least five earths would be needed.

While Spain, Ireland and Portugal feature at the top of the league table overall, all OECD and EU countries are failing to provide healthy environments for all children across all indicators. Some of the wealthiest countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States, have a severe and widespread impact on global environments – based on CO2 emissions, e-waste and overall consumptions of resources per capita – and also rank low overall on creating a healthy environment for children within their borders.  In contrast, the least wealthy OECD and EU countries in Latin America and Europe have a much lower impact on the wider world.

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

Additional findings include:

  • Over 20 million children in this group of countries have elevated levels of lead in their blood. 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 yet rank in the bottom third for the world at large, with high rates of emissions, e-waste and consumption.
  • In Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and the United Kingdom 1 in 5 children is exposed to damp and mould at home; while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey more than 1 in 4 children is exposed.
  • Many children are breathing toxic air both outside and inside their homes. Mexico has among the highest number of years of healthy life lost due to air pollution at 3.7 years per thousand children, while Finland and Japan have the lowest at 0.2 years.
  • In Belgium, Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland more than 1 in 12 children are exposed to high pesticide pollution. Pesticide pollution has been linked with cancer, including childhood leukaemia and can harm children’s nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, blood and immune systems.

UNICEF is calling for the following steps to protect and improve children’s environments:

  1. Governments at the national, regional and local level need to lead on improvements to children’s environments today, by reducing waste, air and water pollution, and by ensuring high-quality housing and neighbourhoods.
  2. Improve environments for the most vulnerable children. Children in poor families tend to face greater exposure to environmental harm than do children in richer families. This entrenches and amplifies existing disadvantages and inequities.
  3. Ensure that environmental policies are child sensitive. Governments and policymakers should make sure that the needs of children are built into decision making. Adult decision makers at all levels, from parents to politicians, must listen to their perspectives and take them into account when designing policies that will disproportionately affect future generations.
  4. Involve children, the main stakeholders of the future: Children will face today’s environmental problems for the longest time; but they are also the least able to influence the course of events.
  5. Governments and businesses should take effective action now to honour the commitments they have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Adaptation to climate change should also be at the forefront of action for both governments and the global community, and across 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,” said Olsson. “Mounting waste, harmful pollutants and exhausted natural resources are taking a toll on our children’s physical and mental health and threatening our planet’s sustainability. We must pursue policies and practices that safeguard the natural environment upon which children and young people depend the most.”

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Media contacts

Georgina Diallo
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 238 1559
Kathleen Sullivan
UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti
Tel: +39 055 2033 222

Multimedia content

South Sudan. An aerial view of Pibor in South Sudan. Almost one-fifth of the country, which is about the size of France, is battling with unusually severe flooding.
An aerial view of Pibor in South Sudan. Almost one-fifth of the country, which is about the size of France, is battling with unusually severe flooding.

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About the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti

The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit: www.unicef-irc.org

About UNICEF

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