Building back from COVID-19 will be an inter-generational effort. Decisions being taken now about what sectors of our economy to prioritize and what opportunities to seize in the recovery effort may impact the lives of children and youth disproportionately. Securing a healthy, safe future that is more resilient to global threats is fundamental, as this emerging generation of voters and consumers are increasingly aware.
School programmes moved online. Schedules changed. Routines thrown into turmoil. It is difficult to know what long-term changes COVID-19 will have on the children who are enduring the current pandemic, but something surely is coming. Whether it is shifts in attitude toward society, work or education, the youngest generation will not come out of this the same.
One area where attitudes may shift most is on the environment.
Already, youth are way ahead of their elders when it comes to protecting the planet. Now, a generation of young people will have seen first-hand the impacts of a truly global crisis. For the youth voices anxious about the climate emergency, the pandemic may well only harden their resolve.
There is already evidence of this. Many movements led by young people, such as Fridays for Future, which have shifted the social tenor of climate action, have not stopped, but moved online. During this time of social distancing, rather than a hiatus, young people are making their voices heard from home.
And beyond social action, young people continue to make strides politically and legally. Newly-elected officials in parts of the world swept into office by young people are working to prioritize environmental assurances for COVID-19 recovery efforts. Youth-led petitions continue to work their way through courts in Colombia, Canada, Norway, the US and elsewhere to compel environmental action from governments and businesses.
Another process has begun as well, but this time through a global initiative. UNEP is supporting efforts to advance a child’s right to a healthy, safe, clean and sustainable environment.
No group is more vulnerable to environmental harm than children, as David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, explains.
“Every child on Earth, no matter what country they live in, should have the right to live, play and study in healthy environments,” says Boyd. “Today, far too many children suffer from polluted air, contaminated water, and inadequate food. Also worrisome are the growing impacts of climate change and the decline of ecosystems and biodiversity, which will inflict increasing harm on children in the future, including more pandemics like COVID-19, unless current trends are reversed.”
The Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative will culminate in the preparation of a “Declaration on Children’s Right to a Healthy Environment”. The Declaration will inspire further action to set standards at the international and national levels and feed into efforts to establish a global right to a healthy environment. Work on the Declaration began with consultations in both Latin America and Asia in 2019, and it will continue to evolve through next year as more regions are brought in.
COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of global systems to protect the environment, health and economy, demonstrating that there are no individual solutions to a global crisis. But the pandemic has allowed us to revisit our relationship with nature and provided the opportunity to build back better on a planetary scale. Central to this effort will be the principle that we should all have the right to a healthy environment. In particular, we must uphold this right for children who are often not able to exercise their rights.
It’s a principle that has been echoed in the statements of the UN Secretary-General, who has said that building back better must “respect the rights of future generations.”
If youth attitudes continue to solidify over environmental action because of the pandemic, the adults may not have a choice.
As Boyd notes, “Millions of children and youth across the planet are calling for change. The children have spoken. Now the adults must act.”