This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.
Goal #13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
In 2009, when Christina Ora spoke at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), she and the Convention were both 17 years old. Representing global youth, Ora bluntly pointed out to the national negotiating parties: “you have been negotiating my whole life — you cannot tell us that you need more time”.
Many engaged with international platforms such as the UNFCCC are disheartened by calls for urgency. After all, climate change is a complex problem, and solving it will require long-term efforts. But by delaying concrete decisions, are we further shifting the burden of acting on climate change to future generations? Since combating climate change is featured as Goal #13 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the post-2015 development agenda, an increasing number of stakeholders will have to wrestle with this question.
The concept of common-but-differentiated responsibilities has always been an underlying principle of the UNFCCC— one that recognises differing capacities and responsibilities among nation-states in responding to climate change.
Beyond this concept, the idea of inter-generational equity is often brought up in the context of climate change. The conclusion usually is that the generation in power will give to the next the tools to respond to climate change.
This basically leads to the idea of the “Clean Development Mechanism” between parents and their offspring: a mechanism whereby one party gives to another specific tools or technology to reduce the latter’s emissions — without necessarily reducing the former’s emissions. While the UNFCCC was founded on the ideal that countries must take responsibility for their past emissions, the same ethos does not seem to apply to generational cohorts.
Beyond the question of whether it is fair to ask today’s youth to shoulder the burden of climate change, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether doing so is smart or even sustainable?
We live on a planet where the majority of people are under 30 years of age. In many regions of the world, the “millennial generation” has surpassed the “baby boomers” in numbers. But, at the same time, people age 80 and older are the fastest-growing age group in many nations. The legacy of older generations’ political preferences and consumption patterns is lasting longer, and in more places, than at any other point in history.
Research suggests that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita decrease among the very old (those age 80 and older). But they steadily increase into one’s mid-60s, and stay above the per capita GHG emissions average of those under age 30 well into one’s late 70s.
While younger generations may have numbers, their influence is debatable. Globally, 13% of youth (age 15–29) are unemployed. This is a rate higher than that of their parents at the same age, and three times higher than the unemployment rate of older generations around the world at present. Youth unemployment rates are even higher than those of older generations in the United States and the European Union (16% and 24%, respectively).
Moreover, in developing countries, 60% of youth who do have work struggle in jobs that are not stable. Their peers in post-industrialised nations and regions fair only a little better.
Given the precarious nature of employment and minimal benefits for young people, those who are employed are working longer hours for less. This means that they have less time and resources to invest in political activism than did previous generations at the same age (and less than older generation do currently).
However, trends towards urbanisation, cohabitation, and the sharing economy mean that on average young people around the globe have relatively low GHG emissions per capita, compared to their elders. Those over the age of 50, in contrast, are carrying their high-carbon lifestyles into an even older age.
Youth need to learn low-carbon lifestyles, and adults will increasingly have to shift towards them: a common-but-differentiated responsibility. Policies encouraging downsizing, smart city planning, and public transit should not just target age groups as “clean slates”; we have to find ways to engage older age groups who may be reluctant to change their behaviour or learn to use new technologies.
This may require some sacrifice among individuals. But previous and current generations in power have proven adept at mobilising mass resources and making numerous sacrifices.
A recent article in The Economist bemoaned the cost (an estimated 4% of global GDP) to implement the SDGs, including tackling climate change. Yet by contrast, this year 13% of global GDP has gone into various armed conflicts around the globe. Warfare offers a sense of immediacy, but for an increasing number of people on the planet, so will the lifestyle and livelihood disruptions that come with a changing climate. And with life expectancies increasing in every region of the globe, there is a growing possibility that even today’s older generations will live to see this.
With this in mind, clearly resolution and willpower are needed — not only for the sake of our descendants, but for our own sake as well.
Combating Climate Change: The Time Is Now by Philip Vaughter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.