UNICEF Youth Advocates engage in a roundtable during the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion. Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 5, 2023.

Ending the Invisibility of Children in Climate Change Negotiations

Today, COP28 in Dubai is holding a special children’s day—the first in the conference’s history—featuring children from around the world calling for real action and commitments to protect children from the effects of the climate crisis. GHN spoke with UNICEF’s Special Climate Advisor, Paloma Escudero, ahead of COP28 and then via email over the week for updates on UNICEF’s efforts to ensure the needs of children are respected, promoted, and considered in all aspects of climate action in line with the Paris Agreement. Escudero, who led UNICEF’s COP27 delegation last year, also shares lessons learned from that experience—and why she thinks this year is different.

What are UNICEF’s top advocacy priorities for COP28 this year?  
Climate change is one of the top priorities for our organization, and it is going to be critical in everything we do. It is important to end, once and for all, the total invisibility, the total neglect of children in all COP decisions over the past 28 years. Never, in any COP, has there been a specific commitment for the protection of and investment in children.

We are determined to change that this year. In the past, the focus was much more on the central task for all of us, the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And without that we’re not going to protect children from the worst impact of climate change. But the conversation cannot just end on energy. Energy is a means to an end, and the end is to make this planet livable for the most vulnerable people who are suffering the most. Our hope going in was that every discussion, every conversation would have not only a human angle, but a children’s angle. That is why children and young people—advocates and champions in their own countries—make up half of UNICEF’s delegation in Dubai. And this year, excellent reports by the IPCC have made it clear that our planet has already changed—and our children have changed as well. We can demonstrate now that children are the worst impacted by air pollution, by climate hazards, by the loss of biodiversity.

Why are children especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change?  
90% of the burden of diseases linked to climate change are suffered by children under five. Their lungs are not fully developed, so many cases of pneumonia—which kills 1.75 million children under five every year—can be directly linked to air quality. We also see, with droughts, with floods, and with cyclones, a massive loss of crops, significantly impacting nutrition in many parts of the world, and this is affecting children’s growth, leading to malnutrition and stunting. Unless we put these issues upfront at every COP28 negotiating table—unless we invest in adapting the essential social protection services of health, water, sanitation, and waste management—we will be failing billions of children. Every child on the planet is affected by climate change. At this COP, every decision—on Loss and Damage, on Global Adaptation, on the Global Stocktake, detailing how countries are mitigating climate change’s impact—must include a specific mention of children and how we will protect them. But what we especially need is to see—for the first time in 28 years of these meetings—is for the Cover Decision, the main outcome of COP28, to specify the protection of and investment in children as a commitment.

How is it going—have any agreements or drafts so far singled out the impacts on children and youth? What are the remaining opportunities and obstacles?  
We are in the middle of the summit and very intense negotiations are underway. A good number of governments and coalitions are championing—for the first time in a COP—to prioritize the protection and investment in children in every outcome. We understand language on children is in the current drafts and we hope that these groups will advocate to keep that language in the final documents and strengthen it even further, so it focuses on protecting children as well as including them. For the first time we have several countries asking to incorporate an expert dialogue on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on children and relevant policy children into the UNFCCC process. The first dialogue could be held by the middle of next year—which would be a significant step forward, because it could lead to a COP30 for children and young people in Brazil in 2025. 

Outside of the negotiation rooms, most of the days have included high-priority events for UNICEF. On the health day last Sunday, we advocated for child and maternal health as a priority. COP28 also had, for the first time, what we call the “fragility” day—that is, how climate is leading to peace, relief, and recovery. UNICEF is present before, during, and after, any climate disaster in 190 countries, so it’s a very important agenda for us. We’re also very proud that for the first time ever, there’s going to be a children’s day, on December 8, with a focus on youth, education, and skills.  

Why is the Global Adaptation component key for UNICEF? 
There was a commitment in previous COPs to generate $100 billion of additional funding to adapt policies, infrastructure, and social services to protect the people suffering the worst impacts. But UNICEF and other child rights organizations conducted an analysis of major climate investment funds and found that only 2.4% of funding was invested in projects that supported children. Now, as we move into a new financing commitment for adaptation, we want to see at least half of that commitment to go to social services. And not just going to health, in general—but to community-level maternal and children’s health services and social protection. The millions of children displaced by climate catastrophes every year lose everything, and they need help from social services to recover. In our recent report on the impact of climate on maternal and newborn health, the findings are dramatic: In children born two or three years after a cyclone or a drought, the damage starts in the mother’s womb, and it can lead to preterm or underweight birth and affect the development of babies born in such dire conditions. Yet there is no specific investment aimed at protecting those mothers during and after climate emergencies that are now so common, almost day-to-day, in many, many countries in the global south. 

Can you tell us more about UNICEF’s COP28 youth delegates? 
UNICEF is working with more than 100 children and young people at COP28. About 30 are in our UNICEF delegation; the rest are members of their own country delegation. We have been advocating for every government delegation to include young people on their negotiation team and giving these delegates a lot of training. We also have global Goodwill Ambassador Vanessa Nakate, an African climate justice activist who is one of our main spokespeople. As UNICEF, when we are invited to speak at the highest levels, we usually offer most of those speaking roles to young people—to give them the opportunity to have a voice, but also so they can engage with—and influence—the top decision-makers. We don’t want young people to just participate; we want them to be part of the decisions. Hopefully this will make a strong difference in the empowerment of young people and bring a different perspective to the negotiations. The feedback from leaders is that hearing straight from young negotiators is bringing fresh perspectives and changing the way they think about these issues. 

What are some lessons learned from COP27 that have informed your approach to COP28; what are you doing differently?  
I think this year is different because the impact of the climate on children has hit home. It is on every doorstep. Every single negotiator here in Dubai, it doesn’t matter from which country, has seen their own children, their own nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, suffer the horrific impact of heat waves, of fires, of floods, of cyclones. Now they understand what we mean when we say every child is exposed—and I think that makes a huge difference. Also, little by little, there are more and more “champion countries” for children. We have, for instance, small island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean that can see the impact on their children and young people every day and are carrying the flag of children in the negotiations. The more countries that do this, the better. Also, a few months ago, the Committee of the Rights of the Child issued very important legal and policy advice to the more than 190 countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifying in detail what needs to be done to protect the rights of every child on this planet to live in a clean, safe, healthy world—and stating that governments should be held accountable for the impact not only on today’s children, but future generations as well. That gives us a very strong, new advocacy tool to protect and invest in the rights of children. 

What advice would you give to students of public health—what skills are needed most, and how can they prepare to be able to help the children affected by climate crises in the future?  
Students of public health are absolutely essential in the climate crisis fight. The children’s health agenda has not really been at the core of the climate discussion and one of the challenges is the lack of data, the lack of evidence. It is very difficult to prove that 1.7 million children under 5 dying of pneumonia every year is linked to climate, but we can measure the quality of the air in those countries where many of those casualties occur. The climate discussion is so scientific. That evidence—along with solutions—is what matters. And the authority to bring that data, those proposals, must come from health experts. Most of the investments will be made through health and national budgets and policies—and unless health policymakers prioritize and connect the dots to climate, we will continue to see primary health providers treating certain diseases like malnutrition or pneumonia as they were treated 20 years ago. I have great hope in the new generation of experts who realize that the world that children are living in requires a totally different approach because they are looking at it through a climate lens. I think they are the ones who are going to make the change. They are going to influence their own governments, their own populations, their parents, their teachers to steer the climate investment to health as much as to energy transition or infrastructure. So far, that has not been the case in any country.

What are some key features of child-sensitive national climate policies; can you give any examples of best practices? 
A recent example is UNICEF-led trainings for pediatricians and nurses, in places like Mongolia, where national campaigns to train them to support and to reinforce primary health care have really had a huge impact on the reduction of child mortality and the severity of illnesses, especially on respiratory diseases. There are excellent examples of governments that not only expanded their investment in primary health centers through the Ministry of Health, but as a national policy, bringing all the different ministries—social protection, health, education, all the different bodies of the government together to work on their climate agenda. And that makes all the difference. Most of the successful examples were backed by very strong political leadership. That’s key—you need political leaders who believe in this agenda. 

Any parting messages you’d like to share with Global Health NOW readers? 
This is the moment to be creating noise and to be making sure that children are treated differently. We cannot assume that if we take action—including on health—at some point that will benefit children. That’s not the case. The climate crisis is very specifically ­­­and differently affecting children. I think your audience knows that better than anyone.


This interview has been edited lightly for length and flow.

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UNICEF Youth Advocates engage in a roundtable during the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion. Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 5, 2023. Image © UNICEF/UNI484261/Maged Helal