With 1.8 billion people aged 10-24, Earth is now home to the largest youth population in history. Young people, like many others, are worried about the lack of political ambition to act on climate change. As terms like 'climate justice' and 'youth empowerment' have become buzzwords for speakers at climate conferences, including the recent COP26, these concepts are losing their meaning as they are increasingly paid lip service to by politicians and business-leaders.
But climate justice and youth empowerment must remain central to all climate commitments. Here is a reminder of why: Since 1751, the majority of cumulative emissions have come from a handful of countries, including the US and EU nations, and the wealthiest 10% accounted for almost half of the emissions between 1990 and 2015. At the same time, small island nations and African and Asian countries are among those worst affected by climate change while having contributed the least to rising emissions. And we, the youth from both rich and poor countries, are left to deal with the consequences.
We are employees at the climate action company and project developer South Pole and attended COP26 as Youth Ambassadors, and here are some of our observations. Despite COP26 promising to be “the most inclusive COP to date," it was fossil fuel lobbyists who were given one of the largest seats at the table: an analysis found that more than 100 fossil fuel companies were represented at COP26 and the number of fossil fuel lobbyists was double the membership of the UNFCCC's official Indigenous constituency. Meanwhile, some Indigenous activists felt more excluded than ever after COP26. Climate justice is defined as a fair treatment of all people in the systems that create climate change and in the creation of policies and projects that address climate change, yet given how the “most inclusive" COP played out, there is still a clear imbalance between those who make high-level decisions on climate change and those that suffer the effects. When it comes to climate justice and youth empowerment, our leaders are not listening.
Given that young people like us will inherit the consequences of climate inaction from previous generations, it's only reasonable that we should have a say. Attending the Green Zone of COP26 on the “Youth and Public Empowerment Day" and being among South Pole's youngest employees got us thinking: “What can we do to incorporate youth voices into our work at South Pole and within the private sector more broadly?"
Young people protesting in Glasgow on “Youth and Public Empowerment Day". Credit: The Lutheran World Federation Flickr
At COP, we were most inspired by the Malala Fund's 'Climate Justice, Education and Gender Equality' event and the international APPG talk that focused on strengthening the parliamentary consensus for global change. We were taken back by the Malala Fund's estimates that in 2021, the impact of climate change prevented 4 million girls from completing their education, and that this number is set to increase to 12.5 million by 2025. This many girls going uneducated will reverse years of work on global development, exacerbate existing gender inequalities, and will also be an immense driver of global warming. Project Drawdown estimates that including all girls in education and providing them with access to family planning will save the equivalent of 85.4 Gt CO2 of emissions between 2020-2050 because of the role that these two interventions play in stabilising population growth. Closing the APPG talk, Mr. Tanvir Shakil Joy, member of the Bangladesh Parliament, asked for the “youth of developed nations to join hands with the youth of developing nations." As young professionals who have benefited immensely from our own access to education, and having also listened to young people from across the Global South, this statement reminded us of our responsibility to collaborate across borders.
We also noticed the disconnect between the Blue and Green Zones at COP26 and the lack of communication between civil society and COP delegates. We spoke to two WWF Youth Ambassadors, Anastasia and Sally, and their insights reaffirmed our thoughts. They were disappointed by the lack of public engagement by COP negotiators and felt that youth activism had been 'sidelined' to the Green Zone.
While we were disappointed by the lack of civil society representation at COP, we were heartened to see that private companies had increased their engagement. This gives us hope that meaningful corporate commitments and actions will follow, even if government pledges fail again. However, we also feared, at times, that our engagement with businesses was used to 'tick a box' in order to create promotional material centred on youth activism rather than as a meaningful exchange of perspectives.
Two climate activist speakers on the stage at COP26. Credit: UNclimatechange Flickr
As found in South Pole's 2021 net zero report, private sector climate action is driven by stakeholder demand and the chance to be seen as a leader in a company fields. Young people are the customers of today and leaders of tomorrow and should be considered as a key stakeholder in topics that impact future generations. Businesses must recognise and act on the voices and opinions of young people, if nothing else to keep us as customers. Companies must avoid meaningless acts of tokenism and “youthwashing" and instead create the frameworks that enable youth to take a seat at the decision-making table. By doing so, the private sector has the unique opportunity to turn advocacy to action and promote climate justice. Young people can provide a heightened sense of urgency as well as innovative ideas to tackle the crisis. And we, the young people in the private sector, can be voices for the youth on the frontline of climate change.
At South Pole, we are implementers. We have the experience and ability to raise awareness on key issues and create solutions. And as thought-leaders, we inspire others to follow. When developing projects, we should double check that our projects ensure that young people will benefit once the projects are implemented. When it comes to climate adaptation, we should add the youth dimension to the Landscape Resilience Fund's environmental and social management system that currently includes gender empowerment. When we work with leading companies on implementing climate solutions, we should encourage them to apply a youth lens to their plans, targets and roadmaps. We should also involve junior voices in the decision-making of our own company to encourage urgency on climate action; we have youth from across the globe within our company, and they are eager to have their say.
Young people are tired of empty promises. Credit: UNclimatechange Flickr
The private sector must begin to engage in meaningful climate action with young people. If climate justice is a concept that matters not only to the employees of South Pole and our clients, but also to a wider circle of private sector shareholders, management, boards, and customers, then companies need to consider if what they are doing really is enough. The bottom line is that more must be done to integrate young people, especially young women, to have a seat at the table. The private sector has a key role to play in ramping up climate action and effecting transformational change. The time to engage the leaders and stakeholders of tomorrow on climate justice is now. So, private sector: show us, don't tell us!
Read more on how to engage with youth on climate action.