Children’s rights and environmental impacts (The Committee on the Rights of the Child)

Anna Triponel

September 8, 2023
Our key takeaway: Children’s human rights are disproportionately affected by business-related environmental impacts such as air, land and water pollution, and changes to weather and climate patterns caused by the release of greenhouse gas emissions. Indigenous children are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation due to their unique relationship with nature and land that they rely on for their traditions, culture, livelihoods and wellbeing. It is clear that children’s rights cannot be respected without protecting the environment. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is an enabling right from which all other rights, such as the right to life, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health, can be realised. What can businesses do? They can 1) recognise their responsibility to respect children’s rights in relation to their environmental and climate change impacts; 2) take a child rights-based approach to human rights and environmental due diligence; 3) conduct meaningful stakeholder engagement with children and families when providing remedies to environment-related harms; and 4) take a just transition approach to climate and environmental action, ensuring that children are not adversely affected by the transition out of fossil fuels and into green energy. 

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (the treaty body governing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) released General Comment No. 26 on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change (August 2023):

  • The interconnection between children’s rights and environmental impacts: General Comment No. 26 (the Comment) outlines specific rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention) that are or may be affected by environmental degradation, including climate change. For instance, children’s right to life and to the highest attainable standard of health can both be adversely impacted by environmental impacts. Air and water pollution increases “child mortality, especially among children under 5 years of age, and contribute to the prevalence of disease, impaired brain development and subsequent cognitive deficits.” Children’s mental health are also affected: “The clear emerging link between environmental harm and children’s mental health, such as depression and eco-anxiety, requires pressing attention.” The Comment explicitly states that children have a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as it is directly linked to other rights: “The substantive elements of this right are profoundly important for children, given that they include clean air, a safe and stable climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainable food and non-toxic environments.” In short, protecting children’s rights is intrinsically linked to protecting the environment; the latter is a critical foundation from which children’s rights can be realised.
  • Indigenous children are particularly vulnerable to environmental impacts: The Comment states that Indigenous children are disproportionately affected by biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change because of their connection to the land and nature: “States should closely consider the impact of environmental harm, such as deforestation, on traditional land and culture and the quality of the natural environment, while ensuring the rights to life, survival and development of Indigenous children.” This means that meaningful engagement with Indigenous children and families is necessary to respond to environmental harm by “taking due account of and integrating concepts from Indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge in mitigation and adaptation measures.” The Comment also highlights other groups of children such as those belonging to minority groups, those with disabilities and those living in disaster-prone or climate-vulnerable environments that are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
  • What can businesses do?: The Comment states that companies “have the responsibility to respect children’s rights in relation to the environment” and also specifically in relation to climate change. Business activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and the disposal of toxic substances, directly causes environmental damage and contributes to child rights abuses in the short- and long-term. Environmental degradation also reduces children and their families’ ability to adapt to climate stressors such as climate change. The Comment recommends that businesses take a child-centred approach to environmental and climate action which includes: 1) develop “due diligence procedures that integrate children’s rights impact assessments in their operations” in partnership with stakeholders, including children; 2) “establish or participate in effective grievance mechanisms for children”; and 3) reduce their emissions, as well as conduct due diligence to “address actual and potential adverse climate change-related impacts on children’s rights, including those resulting from production-related and consumption-related activities and those connected to their value chains and global operations.”

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