Places and Spaces

Environments and children's well-being

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Places and Spaces:

Environments and children's well-being

UNICEF Innocenti's Report Card 17 explores how 43 OECD/EU countries are faring in providing healthy environments for children. Do children have clean water to drink? Do they have good-quality air to breathe? Are their homes free of lead and mould? How many children live in overcrowded homes? How many have access to green play spaces, safe from road traffic? Data show that a nation’s wealth does not guarantee a healthy environment. Far too many children are deprived of a healthy home, irreversibly damaging their current and future well-being. Beyond children’s immediate environments, over-consumption in some of the world’s richest countries is destroying children’s environments globally. This threatens both children worldwide and future generations. To provide all children with safe and healthy environments, governments, policymakers, businesses and all stakeholders are called to act on a set of policy recommendations.


The report focuses on the following questions:
1. How do environmental factors affect children’s well-being?
2. How are many of the world’s richest countries faring in terms of providing a healthy
environment in which children can live, develop and thrive?
3. What actions can these countries take to improve the environments in which children live?


Figure: Topics covered in Report Card 17

Over the past two decades, UNICEF Innocenti Report Cards have led the way in comparing children’s well-being across rich countries. Innocenti Report Card 16 introduced a multi-level framework that put the child at the centre. Child outcomes – physical health, mental well-being and skills – are affected by the world of the child, the world around the child and the world at large. Innocenti Report Card 17 takes this approach a step further (see Figure 1). As the current state of the environment is shaped by past actions, and is already shaping what lies ahead, we add a time perspective to the model: the world we inherit and the world we leave behind. And because the environmental actions of one country can affect children in others, we also consider the impact that countries have beyond their own borders.

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League Table

Illustration by Lainey Molnar

The world of the child

Children’s well-being and development are directly and tangibly affected by their interface with the environments around them. 'The world of the child' presents evidence on those pathways – considering children’s consumption of air, water and food, and their exposure to heat/cold, light, noise and hazardous substances.

Many children are breathing toxic air both outside and inside their homes. Colombia (3.7) and Mexico (3.7) have the highest number of years of healthy life lost (per 1,000 children under 15) due to air pollution, while Japan (0.2) and Finland (0.2) have the lowest. Safe water, sanitation and handwashing facilities are still not fully implemented in 13 countries. Most years of healthy life lost are in Colombia (2.3 years lost per 1,000 children), Mexico (2.2) and Turkey (1.9). In the world’s richest countries, 1 in 25 children is poisoned by lead, a toxicant responsible for more deaths than malaria, war and terrorism, or natural disasters. Lead can enter children’s bloodstreams while they play, dress up or paint a picture, for example. Lead not only affects children’s bodily functions, but has adverse effects on attention span, memory, and planning and problem solving. Pesticide pollution – linked with leukaemia and developmental delays – can harm children’s nervous, cardiovascular, genitourinary, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, blood and immune systems. In Czechia, Poland, Belgium, Israel and the Netherlands, more than 1 in 12 children live in areas with a high pesticide pollution risk. Noise pollution – highest in Malta, the Netherlands and Portugal – is linked to various adverse health effects, including poor birth outcomes, stress, reduced cognitive functioning and inhibited school performance.

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Illustration by Steph Edwards

The world around the child

The 'world around the child' looks at the aspects of the natural and built environment with which children interact directly. The quality, enjoyability and safety of homes and surrounding public spaces influence children’s daily lives. They have implications for the children’s physical and mental health, as well as for their cognitive, emotional and social development. Interactions between housing quality and the quality of local surroundings further shape children’s wellbeing. Issues to do with transport systems and mobility likewise have many implications for children’s well-being and development. The Report Card investigates the links between these factors and children’s outcomes: mental well-being, physical health and skills.



Illustration by Kari Moden


Damp and mould are major environmental risk factors within the home that contribute to upper respiratory infections, asthma and bronchitis. In Denmark, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Hungary and Portugal, more than one child in five is exposed to damp and mould; in Cyprus and Turkey, the proportion is over one in three.

In seven countries, more than one household in four, suffers from overcrowding – which has adverse effects on children’s learning outcomes. Having a quiet space of one’s own provides both privacy and a good environment in which to study. In an average country, one in seven 15-year-olds lacks their own desk and a quiet place to study. More than 30 per cent of 15-year-olds in Chile, Mexico and Colombia did not have these basic facilities.

Green spaces, listed by the World Health Organization as among the social determinants of health, correlate positively with young people’s life satisfaction. Finland leads in terms of urban green spaces, followed closely by Iceland and Lithuania. Cities in Israel and the Republic of Korea are the least green. Traffic accidents are among the leading causes of child death around the world. In an average country, 1.34 years of healthy life are lost per 1,000 children due to traffic accidents – ranging from less than one year (0.65) in Sweden, Iceland, Malta and Ireland to over three years in Colombia, Turkey and Mexico.

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The world at large

The 'world at large' refers to broader aspects of the physical and policy environments surrounding children’s microsystems (the worlds around children). It includes elements of the built and natural environment at the local, regional, national and global levels. While children do not directly interact with them, these elements shape children’s experiences.

Some rich countries have a particularly detrimental environmental impact on the earth, relative to their population size. If everyone in the world lived like the average person from Report Card countries, we would need 3.3 globes to sustain these lifestyles: ranging from 1.2 in Colombia to 8 in Luxembourg. Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions of rich countries are not sustainable. On average, 9 metric tonnes of CO2 per person are generated each year, from the countries analysed in the report. The carbon footprint of an average citizen of Luxembourg is over 36 metric tonnes per year, which is more than the combined footprints of a person from the seven countries with the lowest consumption. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol committed the industrialized countries and economies in transition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, the four biggest polluters – Australia, Canada, Luxemburg and the United States – have emitted more than 380 tonnes of CO2 per citizen, while six countries kept their respective emissions under 100 tonnes.

Across rich countries, waste production increased from an average of 484 kg per person in 2010 to 534 kg per person in 2019. These averages mask a huge gap: from around 266 kg in Costa Rica to 960 kg in Canada. In 25 countries, most waste is still neither recycled nor composted. The fastest growing type of waste is electronic waste (e-waste): rich countries generated 53.6 million tonnes in 2019, and this is expected to double by 2035. E-waste contains hazardous substances such as mercury, cadmium and lead, which damage the human body and brain, taking the highest toll on children. E-waste serves as an example of how environmental factors are linked across time and geography – as some of this hazardous waste ends up harming children in the Global South. Some wealthy countries that rank high on the world around the child dimension, such as Norway and Switzerland, are among those that consume and waste the most electronics: Norway generates 26 kg of e-waste per person, and Switzerland 23.4 kg per person, each year. So far, only two rich countries – Iceland and Norway – have succeeded in deriving the majority of their energy from renewable sources.

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Report Card 17 provides five key recommendations to improve the environments in which children live and develop:

1. Focus on children now, protect the future
Today’s environmental problems are costing children healthy years of life. In most cases – including with waste and pollution – the same issues that are damaging the planet in the long run are also damaging children’s lives today. 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 where children can live, develop and thrive.

2. Improve environments for the most vulnerable children
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed stark inequalities both between and within countries. Children in poor families tend to face greater exposure to environmental harm than do children in richer families. This entrenches and amplifies existing disadvantage. To reduce inequalities, national, regional and local governments and authorities should prioritize investments designed to improve the quality of housing and neighbourhood conditions for the poorest families, so that all children have environments that are fit for them to grow up in.

3. Ensure that environmental policies are child sensitive
Governments and policymakers should make sure that the needs of children are built into decision making. Children are more affected than adults by certain environmental risks, because their bodies are still developing; and the needs they have of their environments are distinct. All countries should ensure that policies are child sensitive, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Examples can be taken from those governments that have already implemented child rights impact assessments for all policies – and from the many governments that are presently seeking to make their environments more child friendly. 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. Efforts should be child sensitive and include the construction of children’s adaptive capacity.

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. 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. Through examples such as child and youth parliaments and citizens’ assemblies, children should be involved in environmental debates and decisions, and in designing their immediate environments.

5. Take global responsibility, now and for the future
Environmental impacts have no respect for national borders. Air pollution produced within one country harms neighbouring countries and the entire world. Policies and practices must safeguard the natural environment on which children depend. Governments and businesses, through regulations and/or incentives, should identify and mitigate their global impact on the environment. Governments should take effective action now to honour the environmental commitments they have made to the Sustainable Development Goals, including to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.



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