The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing young people around the world into the fight against climate change, as witnessed this week during the Youth Environment Assembly.
The gathering, which is being held virtually, as part of the UN Environment Assembly, is the planet’s largest youth-led environmental event. It has zeroed in on climate change, which participants described as a dire threat to the planet.
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly saw the release of UNEP’s GEO-6 for Youth – a report targeted at 15-24-year-olds, written with the intention of translating high-level scientific messages into a language that is accessible and actionable. This age group makes up one-sixth of the world’s population and is crucial in the fight against climate change.
“(COVID-19) can act as a jump-start for environmental change,” said Rohan Bhargava, 27, a climate change expert and an author of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook 6 for Youth report (GEO-6 for Youth). “We can’t ignore the challenges anymore.”
But the global fight against COVID-19, and the trillions of dollars being devoted to pandemic recovery, is creating hope that the world can finally make progress on climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to,” said Maria Jesus Iraola, 27, an environmental expert, researcher and also a coordinating lead author of the GEO-6 for Youth report. “We need to bring this same urgency to the environment.”
That message appears to be sinking in. The People’s Climate Vote, a United Nations Development Programme survey, showed that two-thirds of those polled thought the world now faced a “global emergency.” The poll is the largest environmental survey ever and involved 1.2 million people, many of them youth, across 50 countries.
Young activists, assemble
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly provided a barometer of what young people think about climate change and the message is undeniably clear: “We need to build back better, we need to be more innovative and we need to move quickly,” said Iraola.
“Meaningful youth engagement has to be mainstreamed across environmental governance,” said Christianne Zakour, a representative from UNEP’s Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), “Children and youth are not just your social media retweets or ornaments to tick the box – it is a generation that needs to be empowered.”
GEO-6 for Youth was due to be released in March 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Much of what was written has since been reinforced by COVID-19, said Iraola.
“We suggested working from home before COVID-19 as a way to cut emissions,” she said. “We didn’t change the core messages of the report, COVID-19 just highlighted and reinforced them. They are more relevant and relatable now.”
The authors of GEO-6 for Youth hope some of the lessons learnt during COVID-19 can be transplanted into the fight against climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to, we need to bring this same urgency to the environment,” Iraola said.
“The future is now. We, as youth, face these environmental problems daily,” said Bhargava.
“The talk used to be hypothetical, but now we can’t ignore the challenges, it’s no longer hypothetical but very real.”
Below are some insights from young people who participated in the event:
“As protectors of Planet Earth, we the youth call for safe spaces and enabling platforms where we can continue to play meaningful roles as advocates in shaping the future we want.” – John Aggrey, Ghana.
“Youth are playing a catalytic role at local to global level, driving for climate action. We call for youth-friendly and inclusive policies which better capture and nurture our roles as positive agents of change. We should be better recognized, promoted and supported.” – Kudzanai Chimhanda, Zimbabwe.
“In regard to environmental stewardship, youth community organisers have done great work over the last several years. Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also the leaders of today.” Rohan Arora, United States.