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Youth claim their space in policy circles on climate change


When Zimbabwe was revising plans related to its Nationally Determined Contributions — targets for national climate action and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — there was only one mention of youth in the document. But one submission by Elizabeth Gulugulu, a youth climate activist and convener in Zimbabwe of the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change, led to several additions referring to support for youth in consultation and implementation phases.    

“It starts with policy, then it goes into implementation of projects on the ground …. I claimed my space,” she said at a panel discussion, during the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in November 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. In this age of crisis, it is vital that more young people from the Global South stand up like Gulugulu to claim their space. 

Representing 40% of the world’s population, people under 25 years of age make up a large and diverse generation. In sub-Saharan Africa, youth make up over 70% of the population, and the median age is 20 years. By sheer numbers, young people constitute an important target for development initiatives. They will also shoulder the responsibility for climate adaptation and mitigation, while suffering from the unprecedented disruptions to their incomes and livelihood prospects resulting from climate change. 

If incorporated into policy and action, young people could power a continental engine of green growth. To realize this potential, they need to be at the decision-making tables. They see limited opportunities for access, however, as evidenced by responses to a UN survey in 186 countries. Youth representatives at the 2016 UN Youth Forum clearly articulated the problem of too few young people from developing countries being able to attend climate-change conferences. The same criticism was levelled at COP26, where access was further restricted by vaccine requirements and the need for expensive COVID-19 tests and quarantine. 

Efforts to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic represent a unique opportunity for stakeholders to rethink business as usual. Youth can fuel renewed hope for a green economy, but this shift in direction needs institutional change, capacity building and dedicated funding.   

Youth voices on a green recovery

In October 2021, a consultation process with youth activists in different parts of the world addressed the issue of youth participation in climate decision-making and action. It focussed on concrete methods that could improve formal institutional mechanisms to boost youth presence in the policy process.  

Led by Canada’s Youth Climate Lab and Ghana’s Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO), the IDRC-supported effort aimed to deliver succinct actionable policy recommendations at COP26. Leading up to this global event, GAYO held six online summits bringing together over 200 youth activists from Asia, Africa and Latin America to discuss and recommend how to spur youth-led development and climate-change adaptation and mitigation. Regional and international qualitative reports synthesize their findings. In addition, audioblogs present interviews with 10 young climate leaders from the Global South, and a brief synthesizes their insights. The consultations informed the panel discussion featuring Gulugulu and four other young climate leaders as part of the Resilience Hub at COP26. 

Young women and men carry saplings and watering cans in a neighbourhood in Ghana.
Volunteers with the Green Africa Youth Organization engage in tree planting in collaboration with communities and other partners.

Barriers to youth participation

One of the young panelists, Beatriz Pagy, said that youth participation in climate decision-making and action has increased over the years. But “this is still limited to people with a lot of privilege,” explained the social entrepreneur and co-founder of Clima de Eleição, a campaign to inform national political discussions on the climate crisis in Brazil. To surmount funding, language and other accessibility barriers, youth require opportunities that are currently only available to a select few.  

Panelist Irfan Ullah, founder and executive director of Sustainability Week Pakistan, decried  policy paths that are strewn with bureaucratic obstacles barring youth admittance to institutional structures. Funding for adaptation, research and policy programs is generally distributed to older experts and connections to policymakers and networks often take years to develop, leaving youth boxed out of key conversations.  

According to the panelists, youth still lack trust in decision-makers but also in their own capacities to engage confidently in these spaces. This hesitation stems partly from fear of lacking knowledge to work on policy, and partly from a belief that social stigma will prevent even viable youth ideas from being implemented.

Youth inclusion in the policy process

The mechanisms youth proposed to access policy spaces include youth climate councils, which provide a designated opportunity for them to discuss solutions and generate ideas for local, regional and national decision-makers. Councils can also carry out research, collect quality data and bring community-level discussions to wider audiences. Canada and  Ghana have recently formed youth councils to discuss climate change regularly with civil servants. Funding for developing nations agreed to at COP26 could provide a launching pad for the creation of more of these councils. 

Youth summit participants singled out the international level as a space that excludes young populations, a situation that could be remedied by mandating youth quotas for international climate-policy processes, international organizations and regional institutions. These youth quotas could include equity requirements such as representation based on gender, geographical location and Indigenous identity, for example. The processes and institutions that do exist internationally to reflect youth perspectives also need to ensure balanced and inclusive participation by employing a diversity of youth from the Global South.   

Institutions taking on the challenge of youth participation will require stocktaking mechanisms to succeed. Youth delegates from Asia recommend developing a monitoring and evaluation framework for youth involvement in the Sustainable Development Goals and Nationally Determined Contributions, to avoid tokenism and ensure youth involvement is active. A monitoring and evaluation framework could improve the accountability of public and private-sector environmental policies. It could also reduce false claims of being an environmentally responsible organization, known as greenwashing. 

Better communication, in a language that is encouraging and accessible, is also needed to make youth aware of new spaces for involvement in policy development. Pagy spoke specifically about how most UNFCCC-related processes happen primarily in English, with no translation, even though less than 5% of Brazilians can communicate in English.  

Elizabeth Gulugulu emphasized the need to reduce jargon and speak to community members about issues in a way they can understand and relate to. She spoke of including people with disabilities, by printing books in braille, for example. “We can’t win the fight if we are leaving people behind,” she noted. 

As stated by Patricia Fuller, Canada’s Ambassador for Climate Change, who also spoke at the youth COP26 panel, youth need to be aware of the new opportunities being created to address climate change. “We have to make this real for people,” she said.

Youth innovation and multi-solving

Youth Climate Lab, GAYO and many of the youth involved in this consultation process champion the ‘multi-solving’ approach. Climate Interactive defines multi-solving policies as those that “help protect the climate while also providing other co-benefits, such as improving health, disaster resilience, the economy, and access to healthy food and clean water.” Put simply, it’s an approach to problem solving that looks at the interconnectedness of issues and aims to solve multiple problems with one intervention.   

Ullah highlighted an example of multi-solving from Peshawar, Pakistan, where a group of young farmers are learning to graft wild olive trees for commercial production. The project provides sustainable jobs for young people in the community and contributes to growth in an important national industry. But the trees also act as a carbon sink for climate-change mitigation and help to prevent flooding. 

The example demonstrates how youth require new skill sets to succeed in agriculture and many other sectors such as energy and manufacturing. In a rapidly changing world, speakers stressed the need to invest in capacity building for young people. To meet tomorrow’s demand, youth in the Global South must be able to develop appropriate skills today.

As Gulugulu explained “we cannot do it on our own…we all have certain areas that we each focus on, but if we are together, we can complement each other… and together we can win the race.” 

Research Highlights

  • Clear spaces are needed for youth to effect policy change through formal processes and institutions. Mechanisms to consider include: 
    • Youth climate councils 
    • Youth quotas 
    • Youth-focused monitoring and evaluation frameworks  
    • Clear and sustained communication channels between decision makers and youth 
  • Youth need funding and opportunities to participate in policy processes, innovate and build capacity in policy development, especially in historically marginalized communities. 
  • Youth can champion multi-solving approaches to address interconnected problems and generate benefits across more than one sector.