Replacing Climate Anxiety With the Hope That Multilateral Action Brings

The end of a year and the start of a new one is a joyous time for families and particularly for children. It’s the season to gather, enjoy local traditions and reflect on the year that has passed.

In a recent global survey of 10,000 young people, nearly 60% said they felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried.’

Yet for too many young ones, 2021 has been a difficult year. Due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions uncertainty, social isolation, and parental angst have been noted early on in the pandemic for their negative effects on children’s mental health.  

Another recent burden for children has been climate anxiety—an emotional response to the threat of environmental and ecological disaster, which shapes how children (as well as some adults) think about their futures. In a recent global survey of 10,000 young people, nearly 60% said they felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’. Overall, 45% of participants said their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives.

There are good reasons to be worried about the future of our planet, as humanity is facing a triple planetary threat of climate change, pollution and waste, and loss of nature. Perhaps governments would become bolder in their climate action if older voters felt the same.

And yet, despite the fears and the anxiety, there’s much to be hopeful about as we commence the new year. Just last year, one of the key pollutants that affected children most, including their mental development, has now been completely eliminated.

This year, Algeria became the last country in the world to exhaust its stocks of leaded petrol, marking the end of a particularly toxic era. Initially developed as a cheap way to improve fuel combustion, Tetraethyl Lead (TEL) had a steep toll on human health and the environment. 

Fumes emitted by leaded petrol have contaminated air, dust, soil, drinking water, and food crops for the better part of a century, leading to 1.2 million premature deaths every year and many more cases of neurological damages, heart diseases, cancer, lungs and blood problems. Indeed, exposure to lead has been particularly harmful to children, resulting in a drop of 5-10 IQ points.

The phase-out of leaded petrol may seem like old news to readers in high-income countries, where the process began as early as in the 1970s. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, TEL was still being added to fuel in at least 117 countries.  

The transition away from leaded fuel was a key priority for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In 2002, UNEP became host of a public-private initiative (PCFV), including governments, scientists, civil society organizations, and even the oil industry.

Since 1972, global collaboration has helped repair the ozone layerstop endangered species from going extinct, and also phase out leaded fuel.  

To introduce cleaner fuels, the PCFV launched media campaigns, supported national programmes, helped develop fuel standards and negotiate regional roadmaps, and issued technical publications to debunk myths around unleaded petrol. 

Within just four years, all of Sub-Saharan Africa became free of leaded petrol. In the remaining bastions, there were pockets of resistance among some local lead traders and producers, slow upgrades to refineries, and even corruption.

As we celebrate the phase-out from leaded petrol, there’s still much to be done in the transport sector. Responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions and with 1.2 billion new vehicles expected to hit the road in the coming decades, the transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility must be accelerated. This is a daunting challenge but one we can tackle: the end of leaded petrol shows that together, we can get this job done.  

A study published this month shows how tougher regulations on fossil fuel companies and vehicle manufacturers in the U.S. have led to a drop in deaths from 27,700 in 2008 to 19,800 in 2017 and to economic benefits of $270 billion following the reduction in emissions.

Progress on environmental protection is made possible through a widened and deepened scope for international cooperation. In the past 50 years, UNEP has coordinated a worldwide effort to confront the planet’s biggest environmental challenges. Since 1972, global collaboration has helped repair the ozone layerstop endangered species from going extinct, and also phase out leaded fuel.

Our generational anxiety needs to be infused with the hope that multilateral action brings. Common efforts—by governments, UN bodies, producers and consumers, scientists and entrepreneurs, the free media and engaged citizens—can greatly contribute to making 2022 a healthy and a happy year.