A generational divide in the fight against climate change

In this post of our ‘Challenges Paper blogs’ series, Hanne Knaepen looks at the new leaders on climate action: young people in Europe and in Africa. ‘To move towards long-term solutions’, she argues, ‘African and European governments need to find solutions together that will include the voice of the young people.’ Failing to do this, will be a missed chance for speeding up global climate action.

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    While politicians have made extremely slow progress in tackling climate change, climate ambition is suddenly playing out at an entirely different level: in recent weeks, thousands of young people have been speaking up with a voice that can no longer be ignored. They are demanding action by going on so-called ‘school strikes for the climate’. It is remarkable that this movement, which started in Sweden last September, spread through several European countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and France.

    At the same time, in African countries, young people are stepping up attention to climate change. In an interview with Timothy Mugerwa, Founder of the Green Campaign Africa, I learned that his organisation is engaging university and high-school students to act for the climate. Following the example of global ‘school strikes for the climate’, young people are also walking down the streets in Uganda every Friday and Sunday, under the motto ‘Keep Mama Africa Green’. They are fully preparing for the Global Climate Strike on 15 March.

    The future of policymaking lies in these strategic and vital alliances that are formed between the youth to drive impact and change. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish climate activist, met with President Juncker on 21 February, where they both gave a speech at the European Commission. In a reaction from Thunberg to journalists afterwards, she expressed her disappointment because Juncker had given insufficient attention to the climate crisis itself and had criticised the school strikes.

    The Ugandan climate activists Timothy Mugerwa has also been trying to influence policy by inviting government officials to the events of Green Campaign Africa and by writing official open letters to President Museveni and other leaders. But this has not yet led to any type of formal responses or collaboration.

    A dialogue falling on deaf ears

    What is so clear to young people, extremely concerned about their future, seems to be escaping the politicians’ attention and their ability to act, despite the seriousness and urgency of the issue: by 2030 already, climate impacts can push an additional 100 million people into poverty.

    The World Bank estimated that, without adequate action, it will be difficult to feed the estimated 10 billion people by 2050, since more frequent extreme weather events will affect crops and livestock. As a result, more than 140 million people from the developing world may become climate migrants. A 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. At a rise of more than 2°C, most ecosystems will struggle. The impacts of climate change in Europe and in Africa will be unprecedented in history.

    Postponing climate action will drastically increase the costs: within less than 2 decades, it may lead to a situation where global warming gets out of control because tipping points will be reached. Based on that knowledge and evidence available, we now need political leadership to immediately step up action, in order to limit warming to 1.5°C, but decades of governmental UN climate conferences have systematically led to disappointment. The latest UN Climate Conference (COP24) was held in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland.

    Ultimately, the nearly 200 governments agreed on the so-called Paris Rulebook, with concrete rules for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Rulebook requires governments to measure, report on and verify their emission-cutting efforts so they cannot easily wriggle out of their commitments.

    Yet, critics consider the outcome of COP24 too weak: so far, national climate pledges put the world on track for almost 4°C of warming, double the target agreed in Paris. COP24 is emblematic of the endless struggle to come to a global agreement in which ambition is struck by discussions on who bears the responsibility and who will pay for the climate impacts.

    Cementing the rhetoric

    From Uganda to Colombia, from Singapore to Brussels, community-led movements spearheaded by youth activists have been raising awareness. And, the climate protests are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But will this type of activism make a tangible difference on a political level?

    Most definitely, it will have an impact at local, national and European levels. In Belgium, people are increasingly concerned about climate and energy (25%), according to the latest Eurobarometer. Also, the local elections in Belgium last year showed considerable wins in the green camp. In May this year, European elections will be held in all European member states. In Belgium at least, the climate protests among the youth will undoubtedly have an impact, possibly increasing the number of green voters and pushing political parties to put climate action higher on their agenda.

    More broadly at the multilateral level, the commitment on paper is there. At the last African Union (AU) – European Union (EU) Summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in 2017, the leaders of both continents signed a joint declaration under the title ‘Investing in youth for accelerated inclusive growth and sustainable development’. Also, they both committed to climate action. But how can they cement the rhetoric on climate change from COP24 and other fora? Which concrete opportunities exist now to make use of this momentum of youth involvement?

    The AU is going through a deep-reaching reform process. This appears as a unique opportunity to respond to the changing landscape and prepare the institution for future cross-sectoral risks. Also, the AU has set up the Youth Division for better participation of young people and an AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub was launched in October last year. One of the six themes of this Cooperation Hub is ‘environment’. Hopefully, these platforms can make the message of the young activists be heard at a policy level and, ultimately, lead to ambitious climate action.

    In Brussels, the Council of the EU adopted its conclusions on climate diplomacy a few days ago. The text firmly states that current action to stem the devastating impacts of climate change is insufficient, especially in addressing the implications of climate change on peace and security, and that 2019 should become a ‘critical year for climate action’.

    Young Africans and Europeans need to be given the space to act as climate diplomats and they need to feel that politicians are finally listening. Otherwise, the slogan of the UN Climate Summit in September 2019, ‘A race we can win, a race we must win’, will just be another catchy, but empty policy slogan.

    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM

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