COP-out: how the youth are shaping a sustainable society while national governance goes AWOL

Featured image courtesy of Markus Spiske via Unsplash.

Before Covid-19, the environmental crisis was hitting headlines in the UK. Anthropogenic climate change became a concept in the late 19th Century and the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) came into force in 1994. The first conference of parties (COP1) took place in 1995 and The Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding treaty on climate change, where countries set their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which are reviewed every 5 years.  NDCs are based on an overall goal to prevent the global average temperature from rising by 2°C and keeping it below 1.5°C by 2030.  COP26 was meant to take place on the 9th - 19th November 2020 in Glasgow but has been postponed to the November 2021. The conference is in collaboration with Milan, who will be hosting pre-COP26 from the 30th September - 2nd October, which is a more informal political discussion, and the Youth Summit, 28th – 30th September.

What are young people doing about the climate crisis?

In recent years, climate activism has gained momentum, of which young people have been fundamental to amplifying action. Fridays For Future was established in August 2018 by Greta Thunberg who sat outside the Swedish Parliament every day demanding climate action.  Her story and activism spread fast to hundreds of countries. In the UK, the YouthStrike4Climate, organised by UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and backed by the National Union of Students, provided an opportunity for young people to strike regularly across the nation, amounting to approximately 350,000 participants in September 2019 alone. These strikes were supported by an astonishing number of adults and businesses too, providing everything from festival barriers to wellbeing support. Of course, some adults were already environmental activists. Extinction Rebellion, founded in October 2018, carried out non-violent civil disobedience just before the YouthStrike4Climate had become fully-fledged.  However, unlike Extinction Rebellion, these youth strikes did not only involve a very small demographic of like-minded individuals, but entire schools from a range of backgrounds.

"March for Climate" | Image by Mika Baumeister via Unsplash.

While of course, Covid-19 put a stop to demonstrations, as global temperatures continue to rise, so does the youth. Teach the Future Campaign became more prominent; an initiative that aims to improve education on the climate and ecological crisis. This enhanced Mary Colwell’s long-standing campaign to introduce a GCSE in Natural History, which OCR has now developed and recently submitted a proposal to the Department for Education.

In December 2020, the online climate conference ‘Mock-COP’, took place where 330 delegates aged 11-30 from 140 countries came together to outline key global priorities for young people. In their declaration, they highlighted how they used ~26,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide emissions compared to previous COP meetings.

The People’s Climate Vote 2020 survey conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed 81% of the public in the UK believe in the climate emergency, of which 77% believed that we should be doing everything necessary and urgently in response, firmly showing how impactful protests have been over the past few years.

Youth climate activism has been particularly successful for several reasons. Social media has created a useful feedback loop for inciting activism, allowing the spread of information about climate change fast and more readily. Globalisation has also been a key driver as environmental issues require all countries to work together to tackle it. The internet has provided a community for young people on a national and international level, even when beliefs aren’t aligned with their surrounding influences such as family or peers.  While young people generally have limited resources, this also comes with limited daily responsibilities too, which as they grow up, can be filled with looking after our planet for future generations. Slowly, youth activism is visualising this for the older generation too, albeit for those where there is less risk in speaking out.

What is the government doing about the climate crisis?

Despite the immense public concern of the climate crisis, the government continues to delay urgent and rapid movement on UK greenhouse gas emission reduction. Nadia Whittome, Labour MP of Nottingham East, described it as “governmental greenwashing” and Barry and Bluhdorn as “symbolic politics”. Finally, Hayley Stevenson defines their efforts in her article in journal Globalisation as “bullshit”. Despite the endless concern over the future of our planet, we did not meet 2020 climate targets. The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) most recent progress report still states that UK governance is not doing enough to reach 2030 targets either, or the new 2050 targets of ‘net-zero’ emissions. There is little sign of preparation for the impacts of climate change either, as risks of flooding and drier summers will continue to hit the nation and beyond. In fact, in 2018, only 1 policy action of the 25 recommended by the CCC were delivered by the British Government.

'NHS not HS2' | Image courtesy Dylan Hayward via Unsplash.

The construction of HS2 has been - pardon the pun - a train wreck. Approved in 2016 by parliament, HS2 will not be carbon neutral until after 2050.  Other negative impacts include demolishing several woodlands and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and £106bn spent on its construction and maintenance which, arguably, could be allocated more auspiciously. The project has continued blindly and is now considered redundant, particularly in a post–Covid-19 world, where Zoom calls will replace much of the projected long-distance travel.

Has youth climate activism changed society as a whole?

Yes. While there is no evidence to suggest youth activism is affecting governance, sustainability is beginning to be taken more seriously by the general public and organisations alike. One of the most prominent shifts in the conversation is the human connection to the environmental crisis.

There is plenty of case studies to show that young people have contributed towards this change.  Four of five Mock-COP’s themes centred around human-climate connectivity; climate justice, education, resilient livelihoods and health. Alice Aedy became a prominent British journalist and documentary filmmaker after her coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016. She entered the environmental community after learning about how the climate crisis will cause mass-displacement of thousands of people, referred to as ‘climate refugees’. She has now co-founded ‘Earthrise Studio’ with her partner, a youth-led media company which aims to tell human stories about climate change.

The cross-over between the environmental crisis and inequality is becoming a prominent conversation, too. This is important because those that are bearing the brunt of climate change are usually from vulnerable or disadvantaged populations. After US black birder Christian Cooper’s video went viral last June, along with the British Black Lives Matter protests, intersectional environmentalism became even more accentuated. Mya-Rose Craig, i.e. ‘Birdgirl’, is a young British-Bangladeshi environmentalist who has been part of this conversation when she began her blog aged 11 in 2014. At age 18, Mya founded ‘Black2Nature’, an organisation that aims to improve access to nature to under-represented groups and is a prominent advocate for equality in nature.  This is echoed worldwide. Vanessa Natake, a 22-year-old protester from Uganda became a climate activist because she watched her community’s food and financial security worsen in a way we do not see in British supermarkets. She is now a prominent leader and founded the Rise Up Movement and the Green Schools Project as well as working with other activists -  most notably being her work against subsidizing fossil fuels at the World Economic Forum. Tori Tsui, an intersectional climate activist and mental health advocate, brilliantly illustrates the importance of the connection between social and environmental injustice in her work online and offline, highlighting its role in mental health, environmental racism and homophobia.

Is anyone listening?

Yes. We are starting to see a shift in consumer behaviour, which is trickling down into other parts of society. This can be seen globally including in the UNDP 2020 youth solutions report which highlights the resourcefulness of young entrepreneurs and the need to support small businesses who are often more aware of their impact on the world. Having said this, The Queen Elizabeth Prize has been awarded to pioneers of LEDs which are 80% more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. Google has stopped building customized AI tools for oil and gas firms. Microsoft has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030 and Amazon carbon neutral by 2040.  Unfortunately, with the greater ‘trend’ in sustainability, greenwashing is also becoming prominent, where businesses are deceiving customers into thinking their goods or services are more sustainable as a marketing ploy.  This is a key example of where governments can make a visible difference. Improving the transparency of companies would allow consumers to make more informed choices.

An increase in investment in green businesses and jobs was backed by 73% of British citizens, the highest among all G20 countries.  According to the Office of National Statistics, the UK’s low carbon and renewable energy economy grew to 46.7bn in 2018, an annual increase of ~4.9%.  The number of full-time employees in the sector also increased by 7.3% to 185,000 full time workers despite solar employment rate decreasing by a third. There is still room for expansion of this sector though. Despite public interest, it only makes up 1% of total UK non-financial employment.  By 2030, with the correct public investment and support, there could be an increase of direct jobs to 694000 full-time employees, an increase of 20% according to the Local Government Association.  However, there has been no investment or incentives for training in green jobs so, even if there were opportunities, no one would be qualified for them. This seems counterproductive considering unemployment rates are estimated to reach 5.1% in December 2020, 1.3% higher than December 2019. Young adults aged 16-24 have the highest rate of unemployment at 14.4% in December 2020. With the correct investment and planning by the UK government, there could be a ‘two birds, one stone’ approach, tackling both the climate emergency and unemployment rates.

Is there hope for the future?

While there is no doubt British governance is lagging, there is some optimism that Covid-19 could be a historic turning point in tackling the environmental crisis; the pandemic was a consequence of deforestation after all. The UK has rivalled China and Japan with a ‘net zero’ target by 2050. The government has taken on the Build Back Better approach after a successful campaign of the same name, and has included an acknowledgement of the potential 250,000 jobs, and the necessity to train young people to fill them. There has also been an investment of £160 million into building ports and infrastructure for offshore wind turbines by 2030.  On a household level, there will be an even greater boost for cycling and walking in big cities, with the aim to reduce transport carbon emissions. The green homes scheme will be extended to 2030 to better insulate buildings, installing heat pumps and sealing up houses, preventing wasted energy, reducing heating bills and improving health.

However, these commitments will continue to only be ‘symbolic politics’ until other governmental actions do not contradict efforts.  For example, the government permitted a new coal mine to be dug in Cumbria, despite being the founder and signatory of the “Powering Past Coal” International Alliance. Similarly, while electric cars would be more sustainable, the £27bn programme for new and widened roads counteracts up to 80% of the carbon dioxide emissions saved from clean cars.  While the extension of the Green Homes scheme is welcome, the programme is vastly over-subscribed, and without additional funding, we will once again miss our 2030 target.

Too often there is still an over-reliance on technology, as Johnson’s prologue in the 10 point-plan indicates. This plan’s general focus is about carbon capture technology, low-carbon vehicles and even boasts about nuclear power; a form of energy which, like biofuels, have been criticized for not being a ‘true’ renewable. There has been no mention of making tough decisions that could offend companies and lobbying powers, including better transparency and regulations for retail, food, transport, and housing industries. In short, Britain’s plan is still not seeing the climate crisis as a crisis.

There is no doubt that the general public’s earnest concern is holding the government to account. Young people have raised society’s morals, amplified climate scientist’s contentions, and forced different generations to reflect on their own actions which in turn has affected the actions of businesses, consumer behaviour and information production. Young people had an advantage in this activism as they are less compromised by whether it is a right or left wing political statement, how it would affect the price of fuel, or whether they could fit it in their weekly budget; plausibly a blessing and a curse. Of course, there will be certain political reasoning behind any actions the government does take aside from holding other international governance accountable. The next general election is set for 2024, far away enough that even more youth activists will be of voting age.  Furthermore, Brexit and the US election results strongly favour climate action and a greener economy. It could allow for a more diverse economy and better leverage in trade agreements, which in turn could improve Britain’s financial stability as we navigate solo.

As members of the public, both young and old, we must continue to apply pressure to governments and the private sector alike, as we edge towards a climate catastrophe.