By Dr Samantha Mudie, Head of Technical Consultancy
This time last week, the 13th August 2020, was International Youth Day. It is a day to recognise and celebrate young people, their initiatives, their voices, and their successes. It surely also has to be a time to look at the pressures they face and to be aware of the help they need to achieve their aims.
This year the theme is “Youth Engagement for Global Action” and no one can fail to be aware of the changes in youth engagement over the last few years.
My concern for our planet and our future led me to a career as an energy consultant in the built environment. I suppose I could be described as former “youth”; but I have definitely not stopped being an activist! I am always reminded on Youth Day of the profound and unjust ways in which climate change disproportionately impacts the future of young people.
In the year since the last Youth Day there has been more attention than ever on the youth-climate front. Anxious about their future on a hotter planet, and angry with world leaders for failing to avert the impending disaster, crowds of young people abandoned school and poured into the streets on every continent. As a reminder of what they are fighting for, I have been moved to provide a few small insights into the fight for climate justice in terms of intergenerational inequality.
It is clear that climate change is a young person’s problem; the average 60-year-old US man has, on average, a good (60%) chance to be around in 2035, our best estimate to breach 1.5°C with the current trajectory. They probably will not ever experience the impacts of a 2°C world, as they are unlikely to still be around in 2054. However, the average global 16-year-old is likely to spend more than half their life on a planet that has warmed by over 2°C!
The injustice is compounded by the global socio-economic conditions.
Adding to the injustice, we also now have more than half of the world’s 15-19-year-olds living in lower middle-income countries. The proportion of the world’s 60-64-year-olds is twice as high (25%) as 15-19-year-olds in high income countries, which of course include those with the highest per capita emissions. The impacts of dangerous warming are felt with greater force in terms of comfort, biodiversity, agriculture, and economic cost in these lower income groups.
Recent research by Emilio Zagheni of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, shows the increase in CO2 emissions by age, which increases considerably in our teens and twenties, only starting to drop as we reach retirement age. Age distribution of annual carbon dioxide emissions of an average U.S. resident is bound to stir frustration.
It is unsurprising that these facts sparked the biggest youth movement of all time, spanning across wealthy and developing societies, on a truly global scale this last year. Living with the consequences of a problem they didn’t cause, for longer than those who caused it, and doing so while being less able to influence remedial decisions and owning less of the resources required to solve the problem has rightly promoted the level of activism we see today.
Now, in stark contrast, we can flash forward a few months and we have the global pandemic where we see emissions from buildings, transport, and industry all around the world plummet. Barely anyone bought fuel, international flights stopped, people walked and played outside, air quality went up among other overnight changes. These are the kind of emissions cuts that I once dreamt about (yes, I have led an exciting life)!
These changes should encourage us, and fire today’s youth with enthusiasm and encouragement. It shows what is possible when we are forced into self-reliance and reliance on our communities, driven to adopt less travel and transport and consider a new way of living for the future.
At a time when young people have been plunged into an unparalleled run of disrupted education, cancelled exams, and faded social lives (on top of losing relatives and household income) there are more immediate problems right now. It is not quite right to celebrate these strides in the art of the possible in human collaboration and policy like some of us wish we could. But its important to note, for a win, on Global Youth Day, that our business leaders, institutions, politicians and governments are capable of acting rapidly together and overcome critical emergencies, we now know it can be done, because we have experienced it!
We need to build on this demonstration of change, to reduce inequality, prevent climate change and improve the quality of life of those suffering from all of these disparities.
This year’s IYD seeks to put the spotlight on youth engagement through the following three interconnected streams:
- Engagement at the local/community level;
- Engagement at the national level (formulation of laws, policies, and their implementation); and,
- Engagement at the global level.
To do this we must stay engaged, keep fighting for our voices to be heard, use our votes, and use our voices to be the change we want to happen.
2020 certainly has been a year that brought unexpected challenges for young people. As with any challenge, there comes a silver lining; an opportunity to ‘dig deep’ and be self-reliant, visionary, and creative in finding ways to support others during these extraordinary times.
Now more than ever – and yesterday more than every other day this year, we salute young people. Young people are contributing to solving the challenges of 2020 and beyond and have the unenviable task of ‘building back better’ to avoid – or at least be better prepared for – such perilous challenges in the future.