Channelling the capacity and creativity of youth to lead the green transition

Guest blogger Vanesa Castán Broto describes how young people’s needs and priorities are often ignored, as is their potential to contribute creative solutions, and their role in stimulating green growth.

Vanesa Castán Broto's picture
Professor of climate urbanism at the University of Sheffield
08 September 2022
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
A group of young people holding a poster that reads "I'm with her" - the poster shows an arrow pointing to a drawing of the planet earth.

On Fridays, youth from around the world strike to call for immediate action on climate change (Photo: Peg Hunter via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

In June 2022 the International Labour Organization (ILO) held a Youth Academy online that focused on the impacts of climate change on youth work. This blog is drawn from my presentation at that event and from the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

ILO has kept a close eye on the evolution of climate debates, arguing that while climate change threatens the future of work it also opens opportunities for a fairer and more sustainable working future.

The promise of a green transition?

There are many ways in which climate change will impact work – and is already doing so.

Climate change-related events can destroy jobs, for example by making crops unviable or destroying markets. Extreme impacts such as heatwaves and droughts also worsen working conditions and interact with complex processes of labour redistribution and through migration.

At the same time, the promise of a green transition, as touted around during COP26 in Glasgow, comes hand in hand with an implicit promise of green jobs.

But the green transition is often conceptualised in very narrow terms linked to the creation of jobs in the renewable energy industry. The impacts of climate change, including the availability of work and working practices, will affect the most vulnerable. But most proposals for a green transition do not seem to consider how vulnerable populations will be able to access the newly-created jobs without the appropriate skills and labour rights, even if these jobs are in their neighbourhoods.

Some organisations such as WIEGO have developed wide-reaching campaigns to demonstrate how a green economy can support most disadvantaged populations.

Insights for youth from the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report

Thinking of how youth advocacy and activism have affected the climate change debates in the last five years, three insights are salient:

  • We can only safeguard the future if we stop emitting carbon now. There are limits to adaptation. Every increase in average global temperature, every fraction of a degree, reduces our ability to adapt
  • We should be aware of maladaptation, which is when our responses to climate change reduce our capacity to adapt to it now or in the future. An example would be where the construction of flood protection barriers destroys the mangroves that not only protect against flooding but also provide a wide range of livelihood support benefits, and
  • We should recognise that those who are most marginalised are the most affected, and their capacity to respond is the most constrained.

Youth advocates and activists have long been emphasising the urgency in addressing climate change and have inspired youth-led climate action during the last decade and beyond. In addition to the IPCC, the literature reports multiple forms of youth advocacy that are already changing the politics of carbon globally.

Youth movements as (green) engines of change

Youth movements have held powerful institutions accountable for their carbon emissions and have forced organisations to make commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The most high profile of these is ‘Fridays for Future’, but there are many other smaller, lesser-known movements that respond to local constraints and needs.

Remarkable examples of positive change led by youth movements are the adoption of emergency declarations by around 2,000 institutional bodies worldwide, including more than 1,200 local governments.

With my colleagues Xira Ruiz Campillo and Linda Westman, we analysed hundreds of these declarations to understand how they operated within local governments. We found that in some instances, local governments expressed active commitments to change key procedures with lasting impacts on institutional change. An example would be changes in procurement mechanisms that excluded high carbon emitters.

Youth advocacy and action at the heart of societal change

Actions led by young people can create cultural and lifestyle changes that could lead to increased resilience and an overall reduction of carbon emissions. A strong focus on individual behaviour change often distracts from the challenges of facilitating a transition to a safe, liveable society.

But the youth are showing how to create broader social changes for collective futures.

For example, young people can influence the future of work by changing ideas about what kind of job is desirable or on what terms. Changing working patterns during the COVID-19 lockdowns, or the creation of solidarity networks among young people to create jobs in ethical and social enterprises, may be among the ways in which young people can help shift broader cultural narratives to facilitate a green transition.

Youth groups can activate change to innovate in their own neighbourhoods, helping to co-create wider projects of adaptation and mitigation that respond to the needs of their community. The creation of low (or zero) carbon enterprises by young people in countries across the world are cause for hope, and demonstrate the place-based character of a green transition.

Beware of ‘maladaptation’

But there is also growing evidence of maladaptation. For example, UN-Habitat’s World Cities Report 2020 describes the growing evidence of climate gentrification, when actions to create safer neighbourhoods end up displacing vulnerable, low-income groups.

Maladaptation also highlights the need to understand green jobs in the context of existing labour markets. For example, green transition plans that exclude or ignore the informal economy are likely to create maladaptation by excluding many millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it.

People are affected by climate change differently, depending on the social conditions in which they live. For example, the IPCC report shows that people who are already marginalised suffer most from climate impacts.

But people are marginalised for different reasons, poverty and lack of employment being only two of them. We need to interrogate the structural drivers of oppression from citizenship – or lack of it – to disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and so on. So questions such as, ‘who can access the labour market?’, are crucial in this context.

This kind of intersectional thinking is something that has already been advanced in many youth movements. For example, we need to understand the many ways in which young people are particularly affected by the destruction of jobs as a result of climate change impacts.

Being responsive to the needs of youth

One challenge which is pervasive in adaptation planning and adaptation action is that the amount of finance provided is only a minimal fraction of what is needed. While the expectation is that this finance will increase, and this is likely to create jobs, the truth is that the level of financing is still dismal.

Facilitating climate finance, particularly adaptation finance, both in the public and private sector, is essential for young people to capitalise on the opportunity to have a real impact in climate change mitigation. 

The other key challenge is to recognise multiple forms of knowledge. This includes knowledge held by Indigenous Peoples, and a recognition of knowledge holders and their involvement in knowledge-making and decision-making processes. 

Other knowledge repositories are frequently ignored or overlooked, including knowledge held by young people. Unlocking this can provide valuable insights into the diverse ways in which young lives are shaped by climate change impacts on the social structures, institutions and capacities that youth movements hold.

Inclusive forms of governance and planning which give space to multiple voices, including the youth, should be the basis for any form of urban governance.

About the author

Vanesa Castán Broto is professor of climate urbanism at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Vanesa Castán Broto's picture