Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.
Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.
A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.
Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.
Children are more vulnerable, both physically and psychologically, to air pollution than adults. According to the UNICEF Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI), nearly 99% of children in the Western Balkans breathe polluted air. Skopje and other cities in North Macedonia have frequently been cited as the most polluted cities in the world.
Air pollution is a symptom of multiple systemic challenges. The burning of coal and fossil fuels in the building, industry and transport sectors, in combination with energy inefficiency, poor waste management and deforestation, all contribute to poor air quality and the climate crisis. The war in Ukraine is further impacting the energy sector and driving up fuel prices as Europe heads into winter. Coal plants could soon be reactivated, as households begin burning wood and even waste, adding to the already excessive levels of air pollutants and contributing to countless health issues for children and families.
Young people in North Macedonia, like elsewhere in the world, demand action so they can breathe clean air and live in a healthy, sustainable environment. Governments, community groups and other organisations, including UNICEF, are increasingly supportive of the youth climate movement through both collaboration and funding. For example, the President of North Macedonia hosted the Youth Climate Summit last year, welcoming young people to the country’s capital city to discuss climate policies and activism amongst themselves and with national and international representatives.
Through their involvement, activism and engagement, young people demand that climate action is placed at the forefront of policy agendas. To turn this into a reality, we need to reimagine youth and adolescent engagement.
This means delivering results on behalf of young people instead of together with young people
Last year, a consultation process with young people, organised with the support of the North Macedonian President’s Office and UNICEF’s office in the country, found that a healthy environment is one of the three most important priorities for young people, next to education and quality of life. A deeper consultation process at the end of the year revealed that air, waste and water are the key environmental issues that young people in North Macedonia want to see prioritised and addressed. And they are ready to take action.
The solutions presented by young North Macedonians are robust and require inter-institutional cooperation at all levels. Prior to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, youth participants at the Youth Climate Summit adopted the ‘Youth Climate Declaration’ with five specific demands for decision-makers: rethink the economic model, stimulate industry to make durable products that last longer, decentralise energy production, encourage solar energy cooperatives, and strengthen education on climate change with experiential learning.
Recognising the potential of young people, it is essential that they are supported in identifying pressing issues, analysing problems and coming up with ground-breaking solutions to suggest a way forward. Commonly, duty-bearers tend to opt for the status quo when it comes to taking action, but this means delivering results on behalf of young people instead of together with young people.
Considering the enormous impact of air pollution and environmental degradation on children’s lives and their futures, it’s clear that we need to reconsider and ramp up our approaches by continuing to harness youth’s potential and progressively incorporating it into existing work. This starts with creating more roles for young people within organisations and among their implementing partners. This means more partnerships with youth-led organisations, and more intern and volunteer opportunities. If programmes are increasingly based on the ideas and solutions of young people, then it’s reasonable to incorporate their drive and agility into the implementation phase too.
Capturing the contributions of young people who do not join organisations is a challenge […] but remains vital
Young people make up almost a quarter of the population in North Macedonia and some 28% in the Western Balkans. Providing an enabling environment for young people and ensuring their participation is key, as also recognised in the European Union’s Youth Strategy 2021-2027. The logical place to start is existing youth civil organisations, groups and structures, such as municipal youth councils, student assemblies and alumni networks. For example, the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive, a legislative prerequisite for EU-aspiring countries, requires each municipality that exceeds air pollution standards to develop a dedicated air quality management plan. Youth councils and youth organisations could be partners in developing these plans, while also making sure that municipalities abide by them. Central and local governments, as well as other organisations, would do well to include young people in implementation through partnerships and participation models, such as green or youth seats in committees and working groups, internships and volunteering initiatives. Capturing the contributions of young people who do not join organisations is a challenge and outside the usual modus operandi but remains vital too.
For example, with the support of the Swedish government, UNICEF in North Macedonia is working to provide existing youth organisations with the opportunity to hone their advocacy skills and engage at the highest levels of policy-making. One of the goals of this programme is to create a subregional network of youth organisations in the Western Balkans to amplify youth voices in relevant local and national institutions, including the European Commission.
Delivering results in a meaningful timeframe to address the climate crisis not only requires the ideas and creativity of young people, but also their involvement from within involved institutions. If we are to move from climate pledges to climate action, we will need to elevate the role of youth in policymaking – and more importantly – policy implementation.
This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.