Youth activism on climate change can make a difference - in Europe and beyond


Picture of Anoka Abeyrathne
Anoka Abeyrathne

Award-winning Sri Lankan conservationist, social entrepreneurship pioneer and environmental expert

Anoka Abeyrathne is an award-winning Sri Lankan conservationist, social entrepreneurship pioneer and environmental expert

One third of the European Union’s population is under the age of 30 years. This means that approximately 175 million – and growing – young people will continue to shape the future of Europe and its policies. While activism is vital for awareness and engagement, it is with positive policymaking that long-term changes are achieved. Therefore, the focal point of activism has been to influence policymaking, ideally by setting swift and uncompromising targets and goals that can be realistically achieved by decision-making bodies.

Much has been spoken about policies for the future, but their implementation has always remained inadequate, especially in the case of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the current Sustainable Development Goals that fall under the Agenda 2030. Key points missing from the discussions on how to achieve these ambitious goals include an immediate Europe-wide ban on single-use plastics as well as policies on limiting population growth.

With advancements in science, technology and healthcare, it is inevitable that the human population continues to grow exponentially while setting the planet with an unprecedented challenge. The planet’s resources are fast-dwindling due to irresponsible consumption, which has and will lead to greater violations and conflict when people try to gain access to limited supplies of water and land. However, the issue of limiting population growth by respecting vital rights related to sexual health, such as access to birth control and safe abortion, continues to be missing from the agenda of European youth-led climate activism. As of now, safe abortion is illegal in Cyprus, Ireland and Malta while in nine Member States – Bulgaria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia and Spain – abortion is allowed without parental consent only from the age of 18 years. While this might sound radical or drastic, it is important that this issue be considered and brought up by climate activists in a much greater scale than now.

Financial allocations also play a major role in climate activism

Some youth groups have already identified that an essential key to create change is the engagement of communities towards influencing policy. A great example of this is the case against the EU’s target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 from the baseline year of 1990. Young people and families have deemed this goal insufficient as they are already facing the issues brought on by climate change, including floods and declining harvests. In this regard, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights is one of the best defence mechanisms that youth in Europe can rely on to drive positive change and influence policymaking on climate change.

Financial allocations also play a major role in climate activism. According to the European Commission, during the period of 2014-2020, at least 20% of the EU budget will be spent on climate action. In order to maximise these finances, encouraging investments in innovations is essential. To achieve this, youth climate activists have supported these types of initiatives through crowdfunding and other related actions to support work at grassroot level. It must be noted though that the climate movement driven by the young has also being criticised for giving financial support to large delegations to conferences, for lacking follow-up action, and for not paying enough attention to grassroot-level initiatives that are practical and create a positive impact.

Community-driven activism has been successful all around the world, as it has been acknowledged that if people are given ownership, they will engage and collaborate on a more continuous basis. From Kenya in Africa to Fiji in the Pacific, community-led movements spearheaded by youth activists have led to positive and speedy policymaking. The future of policymaking indeed lies in these strategic and vital alliances that are formed between the youth and their communities to drive impact and change.

Community-led movements spearheaded by youth activists have led to positive and speedy policymaking

Why youth activism on climate change has remained somewhat stagnant so far is at least partly due to our ‘silo-based approach’. Climate change and its impacts must be considered essential elements of a much larger picture: we need to be able to see clearly how using a plastic straw adversely impacts marine life; how diverting water from rivers and streams can lead to drought; and how the lack of sufficient services can lead to a major burden on farming and food supplies. By understanding and demonstrating this, the youth activist movements have a chance in succeeding and making a positive difference in Europe.

But is this type of activism making a tangible difference? And are we taking the necessary steps fast enough to be able to minimise the effects of climate change on people, land and animals? Much needs to be done in Europe to have a fighting chance against climate change and its consequences. However, by tackling financial challenges, inspiring community action and discussing population issues, we can and will strengthen the youth climate movement to make a lasting sustainable difference – not only in Europe but also beyond.

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