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Child Rights at Risk: The case for joint action on climate change

16 Dec 2014
Joy Guillemot, UNICEF Climate Change Advisor and Jazmin Burgess UNICEF-UK Climate Change Policy and Research Officer,
Today, 2.2 billion children are growing up facing the impacts of climate change. Representing over 30 per cent of the world's population, children have the absolute right to live in a decent environment with all that implies: attending school, having nutritious food, enjoying good health and living and growing in safety. This is not simply a moral assertion. It is a legal commitment through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - the world's most widely ratified human rights treaty and the foundation for UNICEF's work with and for children. These essential rights of children are directly threatened by climate change, and generations of children now and in the future may be denied their rights to survival, development, protection, and participation in society.

1. The UN-CRC, Child Rights and Climate Change

Climate change is an urgent challenge for the world's children. It is estimated that over the next decade approximately 175 million children a year will be affected by climate-related disasters, in the next two decades from 37.5 to 125 million additional African children will be subjected to water scarcity, and by 2050 an estimated 25 million more children will be undernourished as a result of climate change. Children are recognized as most vulnerable to its impacts and should therefore be in the forefront of climate change policy, advocacy and research - and yet they still are not. Furthermore, it is their right to participate in all matters that affect them - and yet this rarely happens. Children are the least responsible for the causes of climate change and yet they will unfairly inherit a legacy they did not choose. The estimated impacts of climate change on children are substantial, work against development objectives, can set back progress for child rights attained, and yet remain critically missing from the climate policy dialogues and responses. However, a critical opportunity has not yet been fully explored which may be able to elevate attention to children's issues related to climate change.

The UN CRC and Climate Change

Children's vulnerability to climate change fundamentally threatens the realization of many, if not all, of their rights as stated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 recognizes the human rights of children, defined as any person under the age of 18, and sets out in detail what every child needs to have for a safe, happy and fulfilled childhood. The CRC is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history, in total 193 governments have ratified it. It enshrines specific child rights in legally-binding international law and defines universal principles and standards for the status and treatment of children worldwide. However, child rights are exposed to climate risks and will become harder particularly for developing countries to maintain their commitments to the CRC. Although all child rights may be affected, 15 rights are particularly at risk from climate change related setbacks, and described in the table below.

Child Rights at Risk

2. Why the CRC Can Be a Powerful Framework for Climate Action

The interconnectedness between climate change and key child rights issues elevates the UN-CRC as a vital framework and mechanism for protecting child rights in a changing climate. Four reasons why an integrated approach can be useful include:

1. Governments have ratified and have obligations under the CRC
193 countries have ratified the CRC and are consequently under obligation to uphold each individual child rights article. This means that governments have a legally bound responsibility to take action on climate change to ensure it does not infringe on child rights nationally.
The CRC puts obligations on governments to ensure that the children in their country are having their rights upheld. In addition, article 24 and General Comment 5 also put obligations on developed countries to take action on upholding child rights in developing countries. This means that developed countries must deliver on financial resources and political action to ensure that children are able to realize their rights in developing countries. In the context of climate change, this could include mobilizing resources to help vulnerable communities adapt to the impact of climate change, and ensuring that emissions reductions do not lead to climate change impacts that negatively affect children in developing countries. In light of the growing uncertainty of a post-Kyoto climate regime where the responsibility for action lies, the CRC is already agreed by all governments and presents a potential framework for action on climate change which can directly complement progress at UNFCCC level.

2. Monitoring and accountability mechanisms exist
The State Party reporting processes with the CRC Treaty Body (UN Committee on Rights of the Child) and civil society engagement with members of the committee provide a unique platform for advocacy and accountability on children and climate change related issues. This provides a powerful opportunity to hold governments accountable to deliver on climate action to protect child rights.

3. Child rights policy can deliver co-benefits to climate challenges
There are significant climate co-benefits from child rights oriented policy which reduces child vulnerability to climate change as it fulfills basic rights for child survival, development, protection, and participation. By delivering on climate action through a CRC lens, governments are not only ensuring they deliver on their CRC obligations, but also contributing to climate action.

4. CRC presents a different angle for climate action
Climate change is increasingly understood to be more than an environmental issue. By articulating climate impacts on the CRC, the focus can be shifted to prioritize children as the most vulnerable population, engender a rights-based approach, and monitor and advocate for the priority for child survival, development, and protection worldwide.

3. Opportunities to Integrate Child Rights and Climate Change Action

Today, without a "child-lens", most existing climate impact assessments and policy are developed without attention to child rights issues. The unique risks to children and the specific responses they require remain overlooked, because they are often enveloped into broader statements. Joined-up action on the implementation of the CRC and UNFCCC can orient focus on protecting child rights from climate change setbacks, whilst also ensuring opportunities to protect child rights through climate policy are maximized. Concrete opportunities exist to bring these two sets of commitments together at national level. The following are some examples:

1. Measure and report child rights in climate risk assessments:
Population vulnerability is often described in aggregated terms as risks for total populations. However, the populations most affected for example, by food insecurity and disease transmission - are most commonly children and will be gender specific. Disaggregated data identifying the risks for children under-5, under-18, and boys and girls should be explicitly enumerated - in national communications and vulnerability and adaptation assessments, so that policies can appropriately respond to child risks.

2. Link child rights and climate change in development planning:
UNFCCC Article 3.4 urges member parties to incorporate climate change into national development planning. Most governments have done so, with both adaptation and mitigation policies included in National Action Plans (NAPAs/NAPs) on Climate Change, or have "Climate Change Roadmaps" which often bridge specific climate plans into 5 or 10 year development planning cycles. Implementation of the CRC has a number of co-benefits for these processes, and vice versa. Opportunities exist to extend climate mainstreaming to mechanisms for CRC implementation and monitoring.

3. Incorporate climate risks to child rights in donor strategies:
Donors can hold recipient countries accountable for identifying and reporting child right infringements due to climate change. Donor countries should review their development cooperation programmes in the light of the CRC and UNFCCC commitments, requesting co-benefits and risks are identified. Particularly critical is monitoring governments' institutional capacity to protect child rights as their society is impacted and stressed by climate change.

4. CRC reporting should explicitly identify climate risks:
In 2011, at least twelve countries noted environmental degradation and climate change as a barrier to CRC implementation. This number is likely to increase. The CRC reporting mechanisms are a primary place to monitor risks to child rights being identified and reported. If challenges to the CRC are monitored, evidence can be strengthened and used to inform UNFCCC mechanisms.

5. Encourage exercising the Right to Participate (Art. 12) in climate policy:
Children and adolescents are an untapped resource for adaptation and mitigation measures, and have the legal right to engage in issues that affect them. Children have gained recognition as "major parties and stakeholders" to the UNFCCC with associated mechanisms for participation. Child, adolescent, and youth engagement should be encouraged and supported at national and local levels.

4. Conclusion

Whilst the rhetoric and case for action on the increasing threats of climate change for vulnerable populations has gained significance and traction in recent years, often the impacts of climate change on children, and specifically their rights both now and in the future, are still overlooked. New opportunities are available for countries to fulfill their CRC commitments by concretely linking CRC implementation to other government processes for climate change. The CRC serves as a core framework for protecting child rights in climate change-related policies, and for monitoring how commitments to the CRC are challenged by a changing climate. By taking action on climate change in line with the CRC we have the opportunity to better address the unfair challenges presented to the world's most vulnerable children.


- UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November (1989), United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ae6b38f0.html

- Save the Children (2007). Legacy of Disasters: The impact of climate change on children. Http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/legacy-of-disasters_1.pdf

- Calculated as the 50% proportion of the total population under age 18, from figures reported in: ‘IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: Impacts Adaptation and Vulnerability'. Contribution to Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

- Nelson, G. C. (2009). Climate Change: Impact on agriculture and costs of adaptation. International Food Policy Research Institute.

- UNICEF (2009). ‘State of the World's Children: Celebrating 20 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child', UNICEF, New York.

- World Health Organization. (2009). ‘Global Health Risks: Mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks', World Health Organization.

- UNICEF and Plan International (2011). ‘The Benefits of a Child Centred Approach to Climate Adaptation,' http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publications/ClimateChange_child_centred2011.pdf

- UNICEF (2011). ‘Children's Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Disaster Impacts in East Asia and the Pacific.' http://www.unicef.org/media/files/Climate_Change_Regional_Report_14_Nov_final.pdf

- Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, 9 May (1992). United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change A/AC.237/18 http://www.un-documents.net/unfccc.htm

- Source: UNICEF-UK Informal Review of 2011 CRC Reports: Bangladesh, Cameroon, Grenada, Guatemala, Jordan, Kiribati, Mozambique, Pakistan, Philippines, Slovak Republic, Thailand, Uzbekistan.

- The CRC defines a child as a person between the ages of 0-18. The UN definition includes Youth and extends to age 25.