Climate Change

First-of-its kind UN guidance calls for climate action by States to protect children’s rights

Insufficient progress in achieving global commitments to limit global warming exposes children to hazards like rising temperatures

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 29 August 2023
Photo: iStock__

For the first time, the United Nations has emphatically recognised and affirmed children’s rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in a new guidance on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change.

The new guidance, formally known as General Comment No. 26, was adopted on August 28, 2023. It provides a legal framework to address the adverse effects of environmental degradation and climate change on the enjoyment of children’s rights and to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable world now and to preserve it for future generation 

In 1989, the UN convention on rights of the child outlined children’s rights, which includes the right to life, health, clean drinking water and survival and development. It has been ratified by 196 countries.   

The recognition is legally significant as it details member states’ obligations under the Child Rights Convention to address environmental harms and guarantee that children are able to exercise their rights, according to Ann Skelton, Chair of the UN Child Rights Committee.

“This encompasses their rights to information, participation, and access to justice to ensure that they will be protected from and receive remedies for the harms caused by environmental degradation and climate change,” said Skelton.

The recognition follows an important declaration by the UN made almost a year ago on access to clean, healthy environment as universal human right. 

By the children, for the children

The efforts of children to draw attention to these environmental crises motivated the committee to come out with the 20-page document, stated the UN Committee on Rights of the Child.

Read more: Climate change threatens the rights of children. The UN just outlined the obligations states have to protect them

The document was adopted after two rounds of consultation with UN member states, national human rights institutions, international organizations, civil society, thematic experts and the children too. 

Children from at least 121 countries had shared and reported on the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change on their lives and communities. They asserted their right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment stated the UN Human Rights office of the high commissioner in a statement.

“The Governments of each country should cooperate to reduce climate change.”; “They need to acknowledge us and say, ’we hear you; here is what we are going to do about this problem,” said two children consulted for the document. 

Obligations to protect children

In the new guideline, the UN member states have been asked to take all necessary, appropriate and reasonable measures to protect against harms to children’s rights related to climate change that are caused by businesses.

Nations have been urged to equitably phase out the use of coal, oil and natural gas. They have also been asked to ensure a fair and just transition of energy sources and invest in renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency to address the climate crisis.

Establishing inclusive early warning systems must be a priority of all the nations to protect children from impacts of the extreme weather events .

Echoing the concerns of voices on developing countries on gaps in climate finance, the UN child rights committee has also urged upon the developed countries to provide grants rather than loans for actions to avoid negative impacts on children’s rights. It has voiced its concerns over the unequal share of finances provided for adaptation and loss and damage measure. 

This has discriminatory effects on children who live in areas where more adaptation measures are needed, said the UN. 

The future of children around the world including India, is being threatened by environmental degradation and climate change, alerted WHO-UNICEF-Lancet in a 2020 report. 

So, ahead of the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN document reminded that insufficient progress in achieving international commitments to limit global warming exposes children to hazards associated with greater concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions, which includes rising temperature. 

Reducing carbon emissions can prevent 4,000 to 6,000 child deaths due to heat in Africa every year, according to a study. In 2022, extreme weather events around the world displaced at least 12 million children in 2022, as per the UNICEF estimates. 

In view of such evidences, the nations have been asked to prioritise rapid and effective emissions reductions to support children’s full enjoyment of their rights in the shortest possible period of time and to avoid irreversible damage to nature.

Adaptation frameworks should address climate change-induced migration and displacement and include provisions for ensuring a child rights-based approach to these issues, said the UN committee. 

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