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Making the Case: Costs and benefits of climate change impacts on children

16 Dec 2014
Courtenay Cabot Venton, Freelance Consultant, International Economics and Sustainable Development,
Chronic crises and sudden disasters related to climate change disproportionately affect children. Not only do children make up almost half of the population in developing countries, and hence are one of the largest groups affected by climate change, but they also are one of the groups most vulnerable to climate change. For example, due to their physical immaturity, threats such as malaria and diarrhoea, hunger and malnutrition often result in much higher levels of illness and death among children, particularly those under the age of five.

Every year in the next decade, the kinds of natural disasters brought about by climate change are likely to affect up to 175 million children. The impacts are diverse. Children are unable to attend school in disaster times and even beyond, as families send them out to work. Children are at greater risk of injury and suffer disproportionately from disease as water, sanitation and food security are threatened; and the psychological and social implications are high as children may be separated from parents, lose family members, be forced into early marriage, or suffer from violence and displacement because of disaster.

The costs are also high. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) "climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4 per cent of worldwide diarrhoea, 6 per cent of malaria in some middle income countries and 7 per cent of dengue fever in some industrialized countries." The Stern Review further estimates that climate change could lead to an additional 250,000 child deaths per year.

The response to the threat of climate change thus demands greater investment in a "child-centred" approach to adaptation. The focus here is on adaptation (rather than mitigation of emissions) because children are on the front line of vulnerability to climate change, and hence adaptation is key to protecting their lives and livelihoods. Many of the measures that can address children’s vulnerability to climate change are already well known, are some of the lowest cost measures available, and also able to bring about significant levels of benefit.

There are three key economic arguments for investing in a child-centred approach:
1. Children are one of the largest groups at risk from climate change. Therefore, measures that specifically target this group have the potential to reduce the impacts of climate change across a large proportion of the population, and may realise economies of scale. Importantly, child centred measures lead to skill development across a large segment of the population and over a longer time period.

The risk of a group of people to the effects of climate change impacts can be described in two components. The first component is the exposure of a group to the impacts of climate change. Save the Children estimates that children make up approximately 50 per cent of people affected by disasters. Hence, any measures that target children as a group have the ability to foster resilience in a large portion of the population, and may realise economies of scale. Similarly, those measures that are built around child participation are drawing on a large population for effecting change.

2. Children are also one of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Therefore, the losses associated with degradation of health, education and protection caused by climate change are high. In turn, adaptation measures to protect children have the potential to offset these losses, and realise significant economic gains.

The second component of risk is the vulnerability of the group exposed to the effects of climate change - in other words, populations will be most at risk to the effects of climate change where exposed groups have the least resilience to these changes. Children are clearly one of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A UNICEF report highlights that children are particularly vulnerable because their physical characteristics, childhood activities and natural curiosity put them at greater risk from environmental hazards.

They are more susceptible to disease, and are more likely to die from climate related disease. If they survive, the impacts of disease can be irreversible and have economic impacts that continue throughout life. Research findings increasingly point to the critical imprints that childhood health, nutrition, and education leave on long-term adult mental and physical health and the ability to contribute to a sustainable society.

As a result of children being highly vulnerable, the potential losses associated with climate change and disaster impacts are high. It stands to reason that where climate change losses are high, measures that avoid those losses result in significant economic gains. In addition, these gains are likely to be realised over a longer time frame: where children are proactively involved in adaptation and disaster risk reduction activities, they carry that knowledge and learning with them for life and, because they are young, the benefits of that learning will be realised over more years than an older counterpart.

3. Many of the interventions that can reduce the vulnerability of children to climate change are some of the lowest cost options and are already well established, such as insecticide treated mosquito nets, and water, sanitation and hygiene training.

Clearly, there is a wide array of adaptation options that can be taken to protect populations from the effects of climate change. In some cases, the options required are high cost, for example structural measures such as building dykes and dams to protect shorelines from sea-level rise and other extreme events. However, in the case of children, many of the actions required are simple and low cost, such as mosquito nets, water and sanitation interventions, and treatment of diarrhoea.

There is clear evidence that investment in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction will build resilience, and that in the vast majority of cases the investments can represent value for money. This is only accentuated for child-centered initiatives, where the benefits may be significantly amplified, for the reasons mentioned above. However, it is increasingly clear that many initiatives that are value for money in principle, are not yielding their intended benefits in practice. Interventions are all too often implemented in isolation from each other, with a strong sectoral focus, and a short-term investment horizon. Community involvement and ownership can be lacking, and the overall effect is that well-intentioned interventions fail to deliver their intended benefits over even a short term. Further, as the international community strives towards defining and developing community "resilience" - in other words facilitating the ability of a community to cope and manage change on their own in the face of a shock or stress - such a perspective demands a holistic and coordinated approach to development, to achieve transformational change.



(1) Save the Children, Legacy of Disasters: The impact of climate change on children, 2007.
(2) World Health Organization, The World Health Report 2002: Reducing risks, promoting healthy life, 2002.
(3) Stern, N., Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury, London, 2006.
(4) Save the Children, 2007.
(5) UNICEF, Climate Change and Children: A human security challenge, 2008.
(6) Children in a Changing Climate (CCC) coalition, Children and Disasters: Understanding Impact and Enabling Agency, 2011.