Placing meaningful youth engagement at the heart of environmental action

June 3, 2022
Youth climate protest

Young people often feel sad, anxious, angry, and powerless about climate change and their feelings about climate change which negatively affects their lives.


As the world prepares for Stockholm+50 - a crucial international environmental meeting which will commemorate the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and celebrate 50 years of global environmental action - the Earth’s triple planetary crisis reminds us of the urgent need for more youth-inclusive and youth-responsive environmental action. There is both an urgent need to recognize and address the disproportionate impacts that the climate crisis have on them and future generations, and a demographic and democratic imperative to address youth rights, needs and aspirations. Let’s all re-commit to investing in youth leadership for a better present and future.

Young people and children are threatened by the climate-nature crisis combined with the unprecedented socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Excessive carbon emissions, disproportionately from wealthier countries, threaten present and future generations. If global warming continues unabated it will have even more devastating health consequences for children and youth, from sea level rise, heatwaves, diseases, malnutrition and more. Young people often feel sad, anxious, angry, and powerless about climate change and their feelings negatively affect their daily life and functioning. According to a recent report, Charting a youth vision for a just and sustainable future, a child born in 2020 will experience on average twice as many wildfires, 2.6 times as many droughts, 2.8 times as many river floods, and 6.8 times more heatwaves in their lifetimes as a person born in 1960.  

Young women and men are some of the most vulnerable to the lifelong environmental effects caused by climate change. Age, gender, unequal access to education and health, human rights violations and a closing civic space all pose significant barriers to meaningful youth engagement in governance and policymaking, a concern highlighted again at the recent ECOSOC Youth Forum 2022.

Yet, youth show extraordinary strength, leadership and resilience and they urgently need to be better supported at the heart of environmental action and sustainable development. The world should not and cannot afford to silence or limit the potential of young people in development processes, including climate action, biodiversity protection and ecosystem restoration. Listening to the voices of youth in the decisions taken now and ensuring that young people can shape, implement and hold governments accountable to those decisions is fundamental if we are to lay the groundwork for a better, more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future. A systemic change at a massive scale is urgently required to address and remove inequalities, and to tackle structural barriers to meaningful youth engagement in our collective effort to advance an inclusive green recovery and accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. For that to happen we need everyone on board - young activists, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, political leaders, journalists, citizens - and all development partners.

UNDP has actively worked in partnerships with youth organizations, movements and networks and a myriad of stakeholders to promote and support this shift towards youth empowerment at the heart of environmental action. Throughout the years we have learned, codified and disseminated our experience. Our latest guidance note for practitioners, ‘Aiming Higher’, explores how to elevate meaningful youth engagement in climate action, both conceptually and practically, and suggests a diversity of actionable recommendations built upon broad consultations with youth networks and UNDP's knowledge and experience in all regions.

Seven lessons that can inform future work:

  • Tackling the climate crisis requires both ambition and empowerment. National climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, known a Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), provide an important opportunity for robust leadership to support climate action that can both raise climate ambition and ensure climate justice. Young people play a key role in leaving no-one behind, and in raising ambition. Ninety four percent of Climate Promise countries now prioritize political will and societal ownership in their climate pledges, with a focus on gender and youth. Approximately 80 percent of the latest NDCs include considerations of young people compared to 40 percent of first-generation NDCs.  
  • Youth participation is first and foremost a right. Young people have the right to participate in decision-making that affects them and their societies. They are not a homogenous group and it is important to protect and promote the rights of all youth.
  • Listening to young peoples’ voices and championing youth-inclusive data collection, analysis and research are critical first steps. It is not enough to speak about youth or assume what young peoples’ needs and aspirations may be. Providing youth-inclusive and safe spaces is crucial. Meeting young people, in all their diversity, where they are, is even more effective.
  • Youth engagement needs to be meaningful. While we applaud the increasing global momentum to recognize the positive role that young people play in climate action, tokenism, at all levels, is always a risk, and often a reality. Efforts need to be channeled to progress beyond advocacy and consultations, to enable young people to influence norms, behaviour, institutional structures, formal and informal political processes and accountability mechanisms.
  • Addressing adult-centric structures, structural inequality and systemic discrimination is a must. This means addressing gender inequalities, promoting intersectionality, and creating the conditions to share power.
  • Securing dedicated financial resources for meaningful youth engagement is necessary. We must collectively improve our ability to directly fund youth organizations, movements and networks who lead environmental initiatives. This is fundamental to strengthen youth agency and leadership and offer funding options which are truly tailored to their needs.
  • Meaningful youth engagement would benefit from being more results-oriented. Although youth participation is primarily a right and can be difficult to quantify or measure, more efforts should be made to better assess youth participation and influence on climate action.

UNDP’s Don’t Choose Extinction campaign is an urgent call to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and transitions to sustainable energy and economies, while leaving no one behind. The campaign’s collective intelligence platform, Global Mindpool, is purpose-built to connect global youth to policy makers on urgent climate action.

Join UNDP as we scale up our collaborative efforts with youth and other partners to effectively address young people’s needs, aspirations and concerns while celebrating and leveraging their immense knowledge, creativity, and innovation power.

Op-ed prepared in the context of Ulrika Modeer’s participation at the launch of the report “Charting a youth vision for a just and sustainable future” co-authored by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in the lead up to the Stockholm+50