The report, commissioned by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, also highlights the threat children face from harmful marketing of fat- and sugar-laden foods, alcohol and tobacco.
“From the climate crisis to obesity and harmful commercial marketing, children around the world are having to contend with threats that were unimaginable just a few generations ago,” UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore said.
The report, published in The Lancet medical journal, ranks the performance of 180 countries when it comes to child survival, education and nutrition rates.
Under these criteria, less-developed nations such as Central African Republic and Chad perform particularly poorly compared to rich countries such as Norway and the Netherlands.
However, the rankings are largely reversed when the impacts of air pollution from per capita carbon emissions were assessed.
"The world's decision-makers are failing today's children and youth: failing to protect their health, failing to protect their rights, and failing to protect their planet," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Australia ranked very well when it came to child survival and well-being, a statistic which Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne’s Nossal Institute for Global Health, Grant Blashki, told SBS News he was not surprised by.
“I think Australia’s in the top twenty for the flourishing measures, so we do very well on education and we have a great healthcare system in Australia and that is fantastic,” he said.
Australia's 'embarrassing' ranking
When it came to sustainability and greenhouse emissions Australia ranked 176th, just one spot in front of Saudi Arabia and six spots ahead of last place Qatar.
Chair for the Environmental Health Working Group at the World Federation of Public Health Associations, Dr Liz Hanna told SBS News the ranking is "embarrassing".
“It's truly embarrassing for every Australian to be highlighted yet again as a world laggard in caring for the planet and caring for our population,” she said.
“Once upon a time we could hold our head high and we could have some pride in being Australian and that's eroding and it's shameful."
Source: Maani Truu/SBS News
The feeling of disappointment in Australia’s ranking is shared by University of Wollongong researcher in child health and education, Senior Professor Anthony Okely.
“While we like to believe we are putting our children first and meeting their needs, our ranking on the Sustainability Index shows that our actions are not meeting our words,” he said.
“Australia’s very low score on this index is eroding many of the advances we have made in ensuring our children are flourishing.”
‘Robs them of future life’
The report was also critical of food marketing aimed at children globally, while in Australia Dr Hanna said the sugar industry is particularly dangerous and the government needs to apply a sugar tax immediately.
“We have 25 per cent of our young people are overweight or obese and that sets them up for a lifetime of chronic diseases, so that robs them of a future life as well,” she said.
Professor Okely believes involving children in urban planning and getting their input when creating health programs could be key to combatting Australia’s growing obesity epidemic.
“Our children are growing up in environments that are not supporting their right to an active, healthy life,” he said.
“With the vast majority of our children living in cities we need to pay greater attention to their needs and give them a voice in the planning of our urban environments.”
‘Moral responsibility to protect their children’
It is hoped the findings will result in governments around the world creating policies based on the needs of children – with Dr Hanna hoping it will give a voice to children at a higher level.
“This report is actually trying to address that situation and hold countries to account that they have a moral responsibility to, as is their legal duty, to protect their children and children around the globe,” she said.
The authors called on governments to radically reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris climate goals and to tighten regulation of harmful marketing.
Current emissions pledges put Earth on course to warm more than 3C by 2100, which "would lead to devastating health consequences for children", from rising sea levels and heatwaves to disease and malnutrition.