Following pressure from 29,674 children around the world, ahead of World Children’s Day at the “Freedom to breathe: A Child’s Right to Clean Air” virtual event, the Vice-Chair to the Committee of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Professor Philip D. Jaffé, confirmed that clean air will be elevated within the UNCRC through the forthcoming General Comment no.26.

Access to clean air has recently been recognised as a human right but is not among children’s rights defined by the UNCRC. Professor Jaffé responded to the calls from children at the virtual event stating: “We need an air quality revolution…It would take 20 years to change the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.”

Therefore, Professor Jaffé added that the Committee of the UNCRC will work on including every child’s right to clean air in the upcoming General Comment (no.26), further adding“I will do my part and I will do everything I can with my colleagues to support you in what you are doing.”

Over the last six months, children from the UK, US, China, and India have been demanding their right to clean air through the Freedom to breathe campaign. The campaign, which is run by Blueair in partnership with Global Action Plan, the Coalition for Clean AirCentre for Environment Education and Safekids Worldwide, has now collected support from 29,674 children worldwide.

Children have become empowered to call for their right to clean air with the support of their teachers through an education programme. As part of the programme, the children learned about the importance of clean, healthy air and how they can take action to improve the air they breathe and were offered the opportunity to call for their right to clean air.

The children’s call was further supported by 62 signatories comprised of civil society organisations, academics, and businesses including UNICEF UK, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), Unilever, and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). In a letter penned to members of the Committee of the UNCRC, signatories declared their support for children’s right to clean air being elevated within the Convention.    

Nine out of ten children around the world are breathing in toxins that exceed safe levels which can interfere with critical stages of organ development in a child. Children are more physiologically vulnerable to air pollution based on their smaller relative size and they have greater exposure to air pollution based on their relative faster breathing rate, per unit of body weight, compared to adults.

“Children are especially vulnerable to dirty air because they are growing, and research shows that body organs can be very sensitive during growth. Lungs, brains, and other tissues can take decades to fully develop, so air pollution has the potential to cause lasting harm. Additionally, children are more active than adults and may not know to “take it easy” when the air they are breathing is polluted. Research suggests the damage caused may be irreversible. To protect this generation and future generations of children, we must clean up our dirty air!”

Edward Avol, Co-author of the USC children’s study on air quality impacts on children’s health

By 2050, UNICEF predicts that air pollution will become the leading cause of child mortality and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2016 alone, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

Further urgency for change is also being pursued by the WHO which recently slashed its global air quality guidelines. Based on an improved understanding of the devastating impacts air pollution has on human health, in September 2021 the organization halved the guideline for particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution and quartered the guideline for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.

The Freedom to breathe campaign hopes the Committee of the UNCRC’s acknowledgment will lead to clean air becoming more anchored within the UN system, providing authoritative guidance for States that will accelerate action on air pollution globally. The campaign will be sending a submission through the public consultation on General Comment 26 (children’s rights and the environment, including climate change).

“Change is more likely to happen now that we have the support of the Committee of the UNCRC so this acknowledgment is brilliant step in the right direction. Through the Freedom to breathe campaign, the children came to recognise that clean air is an essential necessity for life – just like clean water and healthy food – we are thrilled that the UN is acknowledging this too.”

Sonja Graham, CEO at Global Action Plan
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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.

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