“We come with more than hope.” These sentiments were shared by Tova Lindqvist, Swedish Youth Council, as she applauded the power of youth during the opening session of the 2022 Youth Environment Assembly (YEA). She went on to assert that the input of young people is crucial to influence stronger policy actions and commitments, and urged participants to continue striving to make a difference and engage in the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA).
This passion underpinned much of the discussions over the course of two days, where participants gathered with enthusiasm, eager to prepare for the resumed session of the fifth UNEA (UNEA-5.2). Convened under the theme, “The Power in YOUth,” more than 150 youth from around the globe gathered online and in person for robust discussions.
Participants heard opening statements from dignitaries and discussed issues ranging from marine litter and plastic pollution to the proposed resolutions related to chemicals. They also engaged with with Member States on how best to increase meaningful participation, during UNEA-5.2 and beyond, to ensure their voices are heard. Several parallel working sessions also convened to coordinate the Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) position ahead of UNEA-5.2.
YEA 2022 met from 19-20 February 2022, virtually and in person in Nairobi, Kenya. It was organized by the MGCY to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Over 400 youth-led or youth-serving organizations make up the UN MGCY, a dedicated space for children and youth in the UN to address issues ranging from the environment and human rights to peace and security. Those MGCY organizations that share a focus on the environment and sustainable development can receive UNEP accreditation and engage through the MGCY to UNEP.
UNEP began its work with young people in 1985, the International Year of Youth. However, it was not until 1992 and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that engagement became more concrete. Agenda 21, which was adopted in Rio, identified nine sectors and rightsholder groups, including children and youth. The involvement of these nine constituencies would be facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development. Accordingly, youth is a constituency in several treaty bodies and other organizations related to sustainable development.
Within UNEP, the Governing Council furthered its engagement with youth through a long-term strategy from 2003 to 2013. The programme was called “Tunza,” meaning “to treat with care or affection” in Kiswahili. It aimed to create a global movement for the involvement of children and youth in sustainable development. An annual Tunza International Children and Youth Conference, a Tunza Youth Advisory Council, a Tunza Junior Board, and a quarterly magazine advanced the programme’s objectives. During its ten years, the programme also organized the International Children and Youth Conference in Daejeon, Republic of Korea (2009), the International Children’s Conference just prior to the tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan (2010), and the International Children and Youth Conference in Bandung, Indonesia (2011).
The Rio+20 Conference in 2012 led to the nine Major Groups becoming more formalized in their engagement with UNEP processes.
The UNEP MGCY was established in mid-2012 and currently has seven working groups, which focus on:
- chemicals and waste;
- ecosystem restoration;
- environmental law;
- human rights and environmental defenders;
- marine litter and microplastics;
- Stockholm+50 processes; and
- UNEA and the Committee of Permanent Representatives.
The first YEA took place virtually from 3-6 June 2020, with over 2,000 youth participants from more than 150 countries. The second YEA, which also convened virtually from 12-20 February 2021, provided an opportunity for youth to discuss and identify their broader priorities for environmental action, including on chemicals and waste, youth and faith-based engagement, and education and the environment.
On Saturday, Dalia Márquez, MGCY, opened YEA 2022, emphasizing the theme, “the power in YOUth.” She encouraged everyone to participate and work together to build capacity and forge partnerships to make the world a better place.
Moderator John Aggrey, MGCY, welcomed the speakers, noting youth want to be involved at all levels, from the drafting of concept notes to critical decision making for a sustainable future.
Raymond Ochieng, Secretary, Youth Affairs, Kenya, recognized YEA 2022 as a “convergence of changemakers,” embracing the strength of young people to shape the future by being part of the change and initiating actions. He affirmed the Kenyan government’s full support for all commitments that come out of YEA 2022.
Gunnar Andreas Holm, Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, shared that collaborating with global youth constituencies for UNEA-5.2 has been both impressive and inspiring. He expressed hope for progress on a global legally-binding agreement on plastic pollution.
Caroline Vicini, Swedish Ambassador to Kenya, said “your (young people’s) voices are influential, make them heard when and where decisions are made.” She looked forward to Stockholm+50 as an important time to further the transformation to sustainable societies, encouraging young people to continue to bring ideas and solutions.
Alphonce Muia, youth representative, Kenya, applauded the participation of so many young people as a testament to their capacity to realize the aspirations of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference), encouraging all to “dream big” and demand change that will build a better future.
Tova Lindqvist, Swedish Youth Council, applauded the power in youth. She underscored that the input of young people is crucial to influence stronger policy actions and commitments, saying that “we come with more than hope.”
Alexander Juras, Chief, Civil Society Unit, UNEP, welcomed the audience on behalf of Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, and reiterated that UNEP fully supports the active participation and engagement of youth in environmental fora. He underscored the crucial role of youth as future voters and as consumers to influence decision makers and business leaders.
Ingrid Rostad, Co-Chair, Major Groups Facilitating Committee (MGFC), remarked that youth are usually the group best prepared and most dedicated and, therefore, an important MGFC constituent. She encouraged youth to continue thinking outside the box and challenging the establishment to change policies.
Moses Mwenda, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kenya, highlighted that youth are important agents of change and underscored that youth engagement in policymaking and implementation is crucial. He encouraged youth to take an active role in environmental conservation and governance.
Ahmed Ouda, Stockholm+50 Youth Task Force, Palestine, said youth must demand from world leaders a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. He stressed youth should not be excluded from any UN or international process as youth are a source of power for any nation.
Pamela Gitobu, Bamboo Association of Kenya, emphasized the potential of bamboo to replace plastics and make a significant positive change in everyday life. She encouraged youth to champion lifestyle changes.
Philip Osano, Africa Centre Director, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), highlighted research projects underway involving youth, noting that the science report for Stockholm+50 that SEI is co-leading includes a youth science report as a key component.
Wanjira Mathai, World Resources Institute, underscored that Africa is a youthful society that needs capacity and tools to make progress going forward. She urged reviewing youth engagement with UNEP over the last 50 years to consider how to evolve over the next 50 years. She called for the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), among others, be youth’s guiding light.
Delegates then heard interventions from youth participants from around the world. Key issues highlighted included: the importance of partnerships to encourage sustainable mindsets; collaborating with other youth present at YEA 2022, including on waste management; the role of technology; and partnerships for conservation, particularly at the grassroots level.
UNEA-5.2, UNEP@50, and Stockholm+50: What Is at Stake?
On Saturday, Ulf Björnholm, Acting Director, Governance Affairs Office, UNEP, engaged with young people on the topic of the “triple helix,” a concept that represents the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR), UNEA-5.2, and the Stockholm+50 meeting. He described the upcoming OECPR’s aim “to clear the field for adoption” by pre-negotiating the 17 proposed resolutions for consideration at UNEA-5.2. He outlined the range of topics addressed by these proposals, including, inter alia: a legally-binding instrument on plastic pollution; resolutions on sustainable lake management; nature-based solutions (NbS), including a proposed definition; animal welfare and the nexus with sustainable development; sustainable nitrogen management; green recovery; sound management of chemicals and waste; circular economy; and the future of the Global Biodiversity Outlook report.
Considering the focus for Stockholm+50 on strengthening existing decisions and resolutions through accelerated implementation, Björnholm foresaw UNEA-5.2 outcomes as valuable inputs to move towards a larger impact in favor of the global environment.
In the ensuing discussion, youth participants raised issues related to, inter alia: opportunities for youth participation, mobilization, and action during UNEA-5.2; the need for tools to measure global and local impact; and the availability of mechanisms to influence the negotiations. Delegates discussed potential pathways for youth to raise awareness and encourage action to reduce climate change.
In response, Björnholm discussed ways in which youth can have an impact during UNEA-5.2 and play an active role, emphasizing the imperative for youth groups to be organized and have clear goals. He highlighted the importance of using the SDG indicators as tools to measure global and local impact. Recognizing the role of youth activism, he stated that any idea for youth action, including demonstrations, requires prior approval. He said UNEP’s Civil Society Unit was available to answer further questions in this regard.
In closing, Björnholm recognized the disparity between the opportunities for youth activism in the Global North versus the Global South. As such, he highlighted the need to adapt to the local political context and advocate for democratic and inclusive societies to promote durable environmental and climate action.
Demystifying Chemicals and Waste at UNEA-5.2
On Saturday, Shannon Lisa, youth representative, US, presented three globally significant case studies from the US, Ghana, and India, that illustrate both the human and environmental costs related to adverse chemicals and waste processes. She highlighted the need to address “legacy pollution,” which she defined as inadequate monitoring and remediation of chemical and waste pollution released in the past. She remarked that the effects of legacy pollution continue to harm human health, hinder dignified livelihoods, and threaten ecosystem balance across the globe.
In the ensuing discussion, participants raised issues related to, inter alia, incentives for youth advocacy in the chemicals and waste management sectors, and opportunities to engage in international fora. Participants discussed how waste-related issues impact their own communities and lives, and the need to identify additional platforms for youth to help solve the problem.
In response, Lisa drew attention to the existing disparities in regulations between the Global North and Global South. She emphasized the need to engage with local and national governments to promote enforcement of existing legislation and encourage new legislation. She acknowledged chemicals and waste management is an issue of global magnitude, and, as such, global youth should play a leading role in tackling this issue.
Leselle Vincent, youth representative, Trinidad and Tobago, framed UNEP’s action on chemicals and waste by providing an overview of existing chemicals and waste-related multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)—the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, as well as the Minamata Convention. She also discussed the role of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), noting that while it is not an MEA, it is an overarching framework to address specific environmental issues on chemicals management. On youth engagement with the four MEAs and SAICM, she said youth can play a role by supporting public consultation efforts by national and regional offices, and support awareness-raising activities promoted by the MEA Secretariats.
Lovish Raheja, youth representative, India, focused on the chemicals and waste-related resolutions for UNEA-5.2. On the draft resolution on sustainable nitrogen management, he said the MGCY is calling for: recognition of and collaboration with all stakeholders, including youth, for the sustainable management of nitrogen; adoption of a ground-level approach for better citizen involvement; and an emphasis on nitrogen-neutrality.
Regarding the draft resolution on the sound management of chemicals and waste, Raheja said the MGCY is calling for, among others: a human-rights based perspective; and development of a special scientific task force to comprehensively list hazardous substances, which would work continuously to identify and characterize these substances and publish results to bring uniformity to chemicals management.
With respect to a draft resolution on a science-policy panel on chemicals, waste, and pollution, Raheja said the MGCY is advocating for: the use of intergenerational perspectives; a focus on behavioral and habitual aspects; and improvement in the exchange of technical resources among governments to achieve optimum solutions.
Discussion on these resolutions included which policies are most effective for nitrogen management and a call to value the contribution of Indigenous knowledge.