Climate Innovators: Empowering a new generation of young people

By Christopher Neglia

This afternoon at COP21 a panel discussion featuring a young entrepreneur from France, a small coffee farmer from Uganda, a youth delegate from the Cook islands and an activist from the Philippines explored how young people, who are an under represented demographic in high level political fora, can get involved in the fight against climate change.

In his opening remarks, Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggested that climate change and youth unemployment are two related and very pressing crises. In fact, global unemployment levels exceed 200 million, and over 75 million are young people. As the impacts of climate change disrupt key economic sectors and value chains, it will be young people who will bear most of the burden.

At the same time, there is a great opportunity to engage youth in growing economic sectors such as renewable energy technologies, waste management and sustainable agriculture. According to Serge Bounda of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), young people are an enormous asset that countries should do more to invest in, especially countries entering what he called the demographic dividend - when rapidly declining fertility rates and a high proportion of working age people without dependants lead to high economic productivity.

The panellists were all highly motivated and working in their respective fields for climate action. But they also acknowledged there are many barriers holding young people back from taking an active role in their own communities. Denis Kabito, a smallholder farmer from Uganda said that when he was a child his mother used to tell him to study hard so he could get an education and get out of agriculture. Farming is tedious, she told him, and it doesn't produce much income. But even though Denis did go to university and became an agronomist, he returned to rural Uganda believing that in order to advise others on their farming practices, he must experience farming himself. He now sees that climate resilient approaches to agriculture can provide a good way of life for people his age. And it's not just about convincing those who are born on a farm to stay there, but also about convincing those who have migrated to cities to return, Kabito said. IFAD has provided extension support to build the skills of farmers like Denis in Uganda, which is a sensible investment given changing climate patterns and the need to adapt traditional practices.

The proposition that youth have a great deal to offer as climate innovators was proved by the dynamism in the room, including from the audience who raised issues such as involving women to a greater extent in decision-making processes, and using information and communication technologies to organize direct action for a low carbon future. Their message resonates with other youth delegates participating in the COP21 proceedings: young people are not waiting to receive solutions to climate change. Instead they are authoring their own.