The youth pavilion at COP27 was a first for the decades-old annual UN climate conference. For the first time, “children and youth” were given a platform to share their ideas and concerns about the future of energy. For those looking for a moment of relief or positivity in Sharm El Sheikh, a visit to the pavilion did not disappoint. It radiated with enthusiasm and was graced by big names – including the likes of CO26 and COP27 presidents Alok Sharma and Sameh Shoukry. Was this a shift in focus towards the generation that climate change will affect the most? Many on the ground opined it was no more than a PR opportunity for leaders to flog their purported open-mindedness. 

“High-level politicians visited the [youth] pavilion [accompanied by] journalists for a short time,” says Yi Hyun Kang, a researcher of youth representation in global environmental politics at Université Saint-Louis in Brussels. “It didn’t seem to promote meaningful youth participation in climate politics […] during COP27. [And] the topic of youth was covered by many journalists in a tokenistic way. When media reported on what was going on at COP27, they wanted to include youth [merely] as one of the interesting things going on in the venue.”

Young people in politics and plenaries  

The establishment of a youth pavilion was a step forward for youth participation in the energy and climate debate – it functioned as a hub for young people from different countries and backgrounds to meet up and seek out opportunities to collaborate.

However, there is room for improvement in how such a space can be linked to the actual climate negotiations, says Kang. “It is necessary to think about a process that can deliver the results of youth-led discussions and events to the negotiations in more impactful ways.

“Although the number of [COP] participants [aged under 30] has increased [since I began research in 2014], with more side events that involve or focus on youth, negotiations are still exclusive and there are very few young people who attend them. Some countries give ‘party’ badges to youth, and there are official youth delegates. However, their roles in the delegation are often limited to subsidiary roles such as social media management, reporting or side event organisation,” she explains.

Youth inclusion in plenaries is deficient outside of the COPs too. Just 3% of the nearly 120,000 personnel working across the UN are under 30 years old.

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“As a political scientist, I believe that new frames and discourses have the power to change public policies,” says Kang. “Youth involvement can benefit the energy transition through providing alternative views to the decision-making process, detached from direct financial or material interests.”

The Conference of Youth, or COY, a COP for young people, was dedicated to “green jobs” last year. The four young people organising it are now working to build a longer-lasting green jobs coalition.

“There is still so much bureaucracy and negligence, frankly, by older people in plenaries,” says Kristy Drutman, who will be part of the new green jobs coalition. “I think young people are still frustrated [despite the progress we have made]. I have never heard any young person come out of a climate change negotiation session [feeling heard].”

Young people in business and boardrooms

Young people face similar struggles on the business side of things. As in the case of policymaking, they are identifying gaps and setting up their own initiatives to meet the demands of the energy transition.

Drutman, who is 27 and graduated from university five years ago, runs two businesses directly targeted at bridging the disconnect between the energy transition and young people. Although she successfully established both businesses without much support from energy industry players, she says it was tough. “If I had had the support of big business or even government, I would not have had to self-fund all my work. I was lucky that I was able to build a business model [that worked].” 

Drutman set up the climate information platform “Brown Girl Green” in 2017 on Instagram and TikTok, two platforms with mainly young users. She has amassed a large social media following of nearly 70,000 on Instagram and nearly 5,000 on TikTok, to whom she explains various concepts related to climate change and the energy transition, as well as presenting her own podcast connecting with a large young audience. She also noticed a big demand for green jobs and a lack of knowledge about where to find them, and so set up the Green Jobs Board, which now connects hundreds of employers in the energy industry to young talent every month. The new business is planning to attend the first of hopefully many job fairs at the University of Vermont, US, in April. 

“Some companies have programmes where they fly young people out to a conference, put them up in a hotel, and give them professional development opportunities," says Drutman. "I think that is one good step, but there are those of us that already have projects and don’t know where to get the funding [for them]. Subsidised programmes offering young people opportunities for blue collar [green] jobs are important too. The IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] is a huge opportunity to get young people into those jobs.”

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Adam Feldman is the 24-year-old founder of Carbon Removal Jobs, a non-profit site connecting employers in the nascent field of carbon removal with the much-needed talent for it. “All credible pathways… for avoiding catastrophic warming also include billions of tonnes of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere,” he says. “To do that, we need to go from zero to an industry the size of the petrochemical industry today. Creating an industry of that size with all its diversity of challenges and technologies is going to require thousands and thousands of enthusiastic and talented individuals.

“There is a similar argument to be made for [both business and policy]: older generations may not make the sacrifices or take the risks we need. Decision-makers need to change their priorities.

“In carbon removal, we are only going to get this industry off the ground if businesses start to treat offsets seriously, not as a greenwashing mechanism. In practice, that means less counterfactual, poorly audited deforestation avoidance credits and [more] investment in higher-quality offsets, including novel removal methods. To do that, young people need to reshape the priorities of the businesses they work in to sometimes consider ethical responsibilities over profit. [Young people] can also help by showing that even if you care about profit, this kind of greenwashing is going to impact your brand and your ability to retain and attract talent,” he adds. 

At the time of writing, Carbon Removal Jobs had received 500 applications through its platform since launching at the end of December and was hosting around 30 companies actively publishing job openings.

Media: a superpower and a hindrance for youth

Research conducted across the world shows that the majority of young people are concerned about climate change. A global survey of young people conducted by Bath University in the UK in 2021 found that 60% of young people aged 16–25 described themselves as “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change.

A March 2022 UN Development Programme survey across 46 municipalities in North Macedonia found that younger respondents expressed greater motivation to engage in activities for environmental protection than older people, with the most active category of citizens who had personally taken action being aged 15–18.

“[Mainstream media] depicts anyone that cares about climate change as an activist,” says Feldman. “I think activism is important, but it [should not be] the only thing that gets attention. When you start to use other sources of news like social media, you get served what you are interested in: in my case, across Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, I am constantly served stories about under-30s doing incredible, practical things to change the world. That is really inspiring for [someone like] me who is more interested in entrepreneurial paths to climate action. It would be good if mainstream media had a healthier mix of all the different ways people of all ages can contribute.” 

While media may be misrepresenting young people’s contribution to the energy transition, their media savvy is one of their biggest strengths, says Drutman. “Media is one of [young people’s] biggest tools along with direct action, and I think more young people need to wield it if they can. I think it is important to use it as a tool to get people in the conversation to connect the dots with the resources and the places they can plug into. From there on, you can build solutions together.” 

Drutman has experienced more discrimination because of her age than her ethnicity (she is Jewish-Filipina), while conducting business. "There have been times where people have asked me to expose my business model or how I do things in a way that is very invasive, that they would never ask an older, more established person. People think they have more access to me or that they can cross my boundaries because I am [young and] naive, but I am not.

“When I went to COP26 and said I was an online climate communicator, nobody paid attention. They didn't care. Then I said I was an influencer. All of a sudden, these people in the client space took me seriously.”

She sums up: “As a young person, if I didn't have the clout of an influencer, I don't think I would be taken as seriously as a businessperson right now. If I didn't have my media presence, and I was a young person who wanted to start [from scratch], I don't think I could.”

Led by climate change activist and communicator Greta Thunberg, the Fridays for Future movement is perhaps the largest call to action by a youth-backed movement. Having mobilised millions of students and activists to protest and strike, the initiative is one example of the enthusiasm and hope that a younger generation can bring to the table.

Young people may not have been around for as long as many of the players in the energy transition space, but it is not uncommon to find those in senior positions who have only themselves recently switched from unrelated industries. The energy transition is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires the participation and input of all stakeholders, including young people. By involving youth in policy and business decisions, an inclusive and equitable energy transition that is sustainable for future generations can be ensured.