High carbon emissions diminish good development indices of children, says Unicef-WHO-Lancet Commission report

Last Updated: Wednesday 19 February 2020

No country in the world is currently positioned to provide a healthy childhood coupled with a healthy environment fit for the future, according to a Unicef-World Health Organization-Lancet Commission Report that was released on February 18, 2020.

‘Healthy childhood’ has been measured by the ‘flourishing index’ which includes measures for child survival and well-being such as health, education, and nutrition. The healthy environment has been measured by ‘sustainability index’, including a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions. 

If one is to view the picture only in terms of flourishing index, one has to go by the ranks that various countries have been given according to their performance on various indicators of sustainable development goals (SDGs) related to children. The first 33 positions are occupied by high-income countries starting with Norway, South Korea, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, Iceland and the UK.

No low-middle-income (LMIC) country figures in the first 50 positions. Moldova is the first LMIC to figure in the list at 51st rank. India’s rank is 131st.

“We have taken a hard look at data and accountability under the SDGs, and find that current efforts are severely wanting. Only the participation of citizens, communities, and children themselves can overcome the enormous data gaps for the SDGs,” the report has warned. 

However, if one thought that just good development indices for children would ensure a better future, one would be grossly mistaken. 

The report, that has been prepared by more than 40 global experts, said that while high income countries may ensure good development indices for their children, they offset it with high greenhouse gas emissions.

They rank good in terms of  the flourishing index but when it comes to ecological sustainability, which is marked as sustainability index in the report, they rank at the bottom of the pyramid. The vice-versa is true for lower-income countries.

Sample this. Burundi, a small east African country, which ranks 156th in the flourishing index, ranks first in the sustainability index. The ten best countries other than Burundi to feature in the sustainability index are Chad, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Repubic, Malawi, Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Madagascar. Other than Rwanda, all these top sustainability index countries rank below 150 in flourishing index.

“The ecological damage unleashed today endangers the future of children’s lives on our planet, their only home. As a result, our understanding of progress on child health and well-being must give priority to measures of ecological sustainability and equity to ensure we protect all children, including the most vulnerable,” the report read. 

The irony can be understood by the following. Norway, South Korea, and the Netherlands rank first, second and third on current child flourishing. But these countries are 156th (Norway), 166th (South Korea), and 160th (the Netherlands) on the global sustainability list. Their per capita carbon emissions are 210 per cent higher than the 2030 targets. 

“Under widely-used business-as-usual scenarios, there is a 93 per cent chance that global warming will exceed four degrees Celsius by 2100. This would have devastating health consequences due to disruption of water and ecosystems, rising ocean levels, inundation of coastal cities and small island nations, increased mortality from heatwaves, proliferation of vector-borne disease, and a crisis of malnutrition because of disruption to food production systems,” the report said. 

So, while poor countries need to invest more in improving health and nutrition of children, the disproportionately high carbon emissions by the rich countries make children vulnerable across the globe. 

The only countries on track to beat carbon dioxide 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 and Vietnam.

It is not just flourishing and carbon emissions coming into play when it comes to tracing a trajectory of children’s future. Another important factor is junk foods and the aggressive marketing to amplify their message. 

While it is a settled principle that addictive or unhealthy commodities, including fast foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, and tobacco are major causes of non-communicable diseases among children, ironically, it is children who are at the centre of the aggressive advertisement campaigns of these companies.

“Children around the world are enormously exposed to advertisements: the average young person in the USA sees 13,000–30,000 advertisements just on television each year,” the report cites an example to drive home the point. 

The result was the following: The number of obese children and adolescents increased ten times to 124 million in 2016, from 11 million in 1975.

The commission, without mincing words, said that industry self-regulation had not worked so far and that the existing global frameworks were insufficient. 

“A far stronger and more comprehensive approach to regulation is required. We call for the development of an Optional Protocol to the (international) Child Rights Convention (ie, an additional component to the treaty that must be independently ratified), to protect children from the marketing of tobacco, alcohol, formula milk and sugar-sweetened beverages,” it said.  

Even gambling and potentially damaging social media as well as the inappropriate use of their personal data was harming children, the commission said, pitching for stronger regulations in this regard too.