By David Stewart
While it’s hard to be precise, the world is currently on track to heat between 3-5 degrees. Already, after 1 degree of warming from pre-industrialised levels the climate crisis is changing the world for children in unprecedented ways. At UNICEF, we recently heard from a panel of child advocates, including young people who lived on islands that are increasingly prone to flooding and have vanishing prospects for traditional livelihoods. Globally, estimates suggest that nearly 160 million children live in areas of high or extremely high drought severity, over half a billion children live in extremely high flood occurrence zones and, by 2030, over 100 million more people will live in extreme poverty as a result of climate change.
There can be no priority more urgent for children than rapidly reducing the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses. But, even if change is rapid and the obligations of the Paris Declaration are met, the impacts of climate change will grow, with future generations paying the heaviest price; as well as doing all we can to reduce the extent of global warming, it is crucial that we adapt and prepare our systems to protect children from the changes that are coming, to the fullest extent possible.
Perhaps no sector has a more crucial role to play as an adaptation strategy that protects children and their families than social protection. An effective social protection system can support family incomes and economic diversification as economic shocks hit; it can prevent drastic coping strategies including drawing down on scarce assets or being forced to migrate; when children and families must move, a well-designed system can provide support as families arrive and settle or wait to return home; and, across contexts it can provide a crucial foundation that supports children and their families as they connect to vital support and services.
UNICEF’s new Global Social Protection Framework outlines the challenges arising from the climate crisis and how social protection – a fundamental right of every child – can respond; it highlights UNICEF’s 10 key action areas of work, and, more broadly, it outlines how UNICEF sees a child-sensitive social protection system, including how it needs to be ready to respond to crises (see Figure 1).
While the required changes to social protection systems vary by context, perhaps two fundamental actions emerge as crucial if social protection systems are to be capable of responding to the forthcoming crises:
- Radically increase coverage of children. Currently, only around 1 in 3 children globally are covered by social protection. Numbers are as low as 1 in 13 in Africa, a region already being hard hit by climate change. Children not covered will not be protected when climate crises hit, and efforts to rapidly scale up national systems will be increasingly complicated by the crises themselves. And as poverty is not equally distributed, neither will be the impacts of climate change – children, women and other categories of the population who are at greater risk of marginalisation will be disproportionately affected. Social protection systems must provide essential coverage for all children and their families regardless of their gender, sex, age, ability (or disability), race or other characteristics. UNICEF’s Social Protection framework is grounded on increasing coverage and achieving universality, as is the broader Universal Social Protection Partnership 2030. In particular, increasing attention is being given to the role that universal child benefits may play as a foundational part of a universal, lifecycle social protection system – and UNICEF and ODI will be releasing a report on policy options and possibilities in the coming months.
- Ensure social protection systems are shock responsive. Having a system in place and broad coverage is a crucial first step, but this needs to be built on. For systems to be able to respond to crises – be they slow or sudden in their onset – requires a number of design considerations: systems need to be built on an understanding of climate (and other) risks and vulnerabilities; key programmes must be designed to reach more people, often with larger transfers at the right time while contingency financing mechanisms are required so that changes can happen quickly; systems need to be ready to cover forcibly displaced and migrant populations; and, the nuts and bolts from operations manuals to staff training and capacity need to be in place.
A recurrent issue is how will we pay for expanding and upgrading these services? Ultimately these are questions that individual countries must consider, but there are many potential answers. One might start with the $4.7 trillion (or 6.3% of global GDP) that the IMF estimates the world spends subsidising the production of fossil fuels. Perhaps there is both climate and generational justice in using revenues from correctly pricing the production and social costs of carbon to expand the coverage of quality social protection for children. Not only would this change incentives to encourage alternative energy sources, it would also afford children protection from the impacts of the changing climate and help provide them with a stronger foundation for the sad inheritance that will inevitably be left to them of navigating the planet to safer harbour.
While every context will raise its unique questions, increasing coverage and making social protection systems shock-responsive is ultimately a question of political will and priorities. The alternative is to accept a world of increasing child poverty and deprivation and the consequences that come from it.
Our guest blogger, David Stewart, is Chief of Child Poverty and Social Protection at UNICEF Headquarters in New York. In his role, he leads UNICEF’s global advocacy on child poverty and social protection, including chairing the Global Coalition to End Child Poverty.