Quinn Dombrowski

How investing in our youngest children will help them cope with a climate crisis not of their making

By Justin van Fleet, President of Theirworld, a global children’s charity

Investing in early years care and education might not seem the most obvious way of tackling the climate crisis.

Why would investment in the world’s babies and toddlers aid efforts to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change unfolding all around us right now? After all, it’s the very definition of a grown-up problem: urgent, life-threatening and riven with complicated political and diplomatic disputes.

The truth, however, is that no matter how great our efforts to address the crisis, the problem is an enduring emergency that is not going away any time soon. The generation that will face both the gravest consequences and the challenge of mitigating those consequences is being born now.

A global analysis showed that young children will face more extreme weather events than their grandparents’ generation: seven times as many heatwaves, twice as many wildfires and three times as many droughts, crop failures and river floods. Despite this stark reality, a recent study on climate spending found that only 2.4 % of finance from key multilateral climate funds supported projects that either addressed the risks posed to children by the climate emergency or empowered them to become agents of change.

But to build climate resilience, leaders need to prioritise investment in the full range of quality early childhood care and education programmes: access to health services, nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and a safe and protective care and learning environment.

The better educated children are, the safer they are, the healthier they and their parents and caregivers are, then the stronger their communities and societies will be. Stronger communities and societies will, in turn, be more resilient and adaptable to climate change.

That’s why as world leaders gather in New York for the UN General Assembly and Climate Week [week of September 18] it is crucial that they it is critical that they act for early years to give children the best possible start in life, and to give the planet we call home a chance of thriving in the future.

The United Nations has identified the potential of Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes for its potential to be a “building block for climate adaptation, resilience, and sustainable development”, given that ECD cuts across several sectors and, if done properly, has the power to transform lives.

Research has suggested that universal education and health interventions can have a direct impact on climate change. The resulting reductions in emissions globally could be as high as 85.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide between 2020 and 2050, according to Project Drawdown, the equivalent of 19 billion passenger vehicles driven for a year. It was also estimated that educating girls could result in a massive reduction in emissions of 51.48 gigatons by 2050.

Ensuring that all girls and boys from the youngest age can grow, learn, and play in a healthy environment by definition includes clean energy investment in ECD infrastructure and facilities to address poor air quality and creating child-friendly green spaces.

Climate education itself should become a lasting element of early years learning. Children instinctively want to protect the planet, so by teaching them about the connections between humans and their environment, they can be the first to raise awareness about the dangers to it and to bring that knowledge to their families and communities.

Their early lives will shape the adults they become, and that may make all the difference to overcoming the climate crisis. We know that the first five to six years are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That is when 90% of brain development occurs and patterns of learning and behaviour are set for the future. This opportunity is being wasted for so many children on a global scale, with just a tiny proportion of international and domestic spending going to the early years.

Five years ago, the G20 members launched a new Initiative for Early Childhood Development but progress has been blown off course due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other global crises.

Giving these children the best chance of facing down the challenges of their present and later lives points to one very clear priority for decisions being debated in New York. It is vital that they push investment in early childcare and education right to the top of the agenda, and include climate financing in programs for children. In doing so, they will be setting the stage for prioritising the right strategies at the G20 talks in 2024, where the incoming chair President Lula of Brazil looks to make tackling the climate crisis a high priority.

We know which interventions and innovations will help give the world’s youngest children achieve the best possible start in life. However, good ideas will amount to nothing without the most essential change that needs to happen – a change of attitude among governments, policy-makers and donors. They must begin to see the early years not as a cost but as an investment, and one of the smartest investments that a society can make.



1 comment

  1. Since the universalisation of quality, impactful pre-school education has failed in many low-income countries, I would rather like to advocate for government regulation, rather than government-only provision, or one-model-only provision. Policy setting and regulation is key and was successfully achieved in Ethiopia in its Education 2020 policy, with 4 main pillars, all of which made a significant impact.
    One model does not fit all contexts. Why not spend energy and funds on those which work in particular contexts, especially where children who are disadvantaged live?

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