Saher Rashid Baig
Global Youth Advocate for Climate, Ocean, Gender and Human Rights, Constituent of YOUNGO, UNFCCC
The History of Climate Action and Youth
In 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the Youth and Children were finally recognized in Agenda 21 as one of the Major Groups. The active participation of Youth and Children in the UN activities was highlighted as the crucial need to achieve sustainable development. Mentioned below is some part of Agenda 21 (1992) – Chapter 25, “Children And Youth In Sustainable Development.”
25.1. Youth comprise nearly 30 percent of the world’s population. The involvement of today’s youth in environment and development decision-making and in the implementation of programmes is critical to the long-term success of Agenda 21.
The basis for action:
25.2. It is imperative that youth from all parts of the world participate actively in all relevant levels of decision-making processes because it affects their lives today and has implications for their futures. In addition to their intellectual contribution and their ability to mobilize support, they bring unique perspectives that need to be taken into account.
25.3. Numerous actions and recommendations within the international community have been proposed to ensure that youth are provided a secure and healthy future, including an environment of quality, improved standards of living and access to education and employment. These issues need to be addressed in development planning.
For young people worldwide, it was neither the beginning of this conversation nor was it the end. It resulted from their years of struggle and hard work; in some cases, the result had been achieved after paying a considerable cost for raising their voice for the right to be included. Furthermore, it was the beginning of a dynamic structure we today call YOUNGO – on which we will explore more at a later point in this article. Nonetheless, one thing happened at the conclusion of Agenda 21. The term “youth” was no longer associated with a specific age group. The zestful young people had changed this definition to a group of people who never surrender to circumstances and fight back with all their power to save their present and future and give the future generations a livable tomorrow. We will now zoom in on the intensity of the Climate Change Crisis to understand why the young people have been advocating for decades for our climate.
Climate Change – The Culprit Behind Many Global Security Crisis
None of us can disagree that climate change is one of the significant existential crises we face together. The impact of climate change is far and beyond melting glaciers; it is not only about having too cold or too warm of weather but also how it exacerbates the global security crises of different nature, for example, the water, health, and Human Rights crises. One of the most pressing topics is food insecurity due to climate change which is also very relatable to all of us. So let us explore this in detail.
Food and Agriculture Crisis
According to the World Economic Forum, there are five phases of food insecurity. Phase 1 is ‘none/minimal’, Phase 2 is ‘stressed’, Phase 3 is ‘crisis’, and Phase 4 is ’emergency’. The worst phase of food insecurity is where individuals would have less to zero access to food and other necessities, even after they have exhausted all coping strategies such as selling assets. This famine level is called Phase 5 – ‘catastrophe.’ Acute food insecurity occurs when a person’s inability to access and consume adequate food puts their life or livelihood in immediate danger. It draws on internationally accepted measures of extreme hunger, such as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) and the Cadre Harmonisé. Hence, countries that are more vulnerable to extreme weather events due to climate change or unstable environmental trends have a low capacity to adapt and higher levels of hunger. Now, the United Nations, the European Union, and governmental and non-governmental agencies are working together to tackle food crises since acute food insecurity has been rising relentlessly since 2017.
According to the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 5th edition), 2021 by the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC), the resilience of agri-food systems is being eroded by long term environmental unstable trends (combined with social, economic, and conflict elements) to such an extent that 155 million people are facing food crises of varying severity. This happens due to extreme weather, economic shocks, and ongoing conflicts. The global pandemic has increased the risk of severe hunger in some regions around the globe. Weather extremes were the main driver of acute food insecurity for 15 million people in 2020.
Food insecurity and climate change are also interdependent as the global food system contributes one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions, and around ⅔ of food is lost and wasted from farm to table, which exacerbates climate change without improving food security or nutrition. And then, higher levels of CO2 reduce the nutritional value of crops, and the extreme weather events due to climate change reduce the yields of major crops. Hence malnutrition is being spread far and wide around the globe, especially in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, northern Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Haiti, which account for two-thirds of those most at risk from malnutrition, starvation, and death according to the GRFC 2021. Food insecurity due to climate change promotes the global health crises by which all of us are directly or indirectly affected. Notably, young people, women, and children (especially infants) are at the front line. The Human Rights crises are also increasing exponentially along with food insecurity since the disproportionate distribution promotes poverty, hunger, inequality, and malnutrition, especially in the Global South.
Nonetheless, there is still hope to recognize this crucial situation and work together as civil societies, non-state actors, and governments. Some steps can be just as simple as shortening our food chain. The other steps can be more concrete in the policy context like understanding and participating in the Climate Negotiations, the Nationally Determined Contributions (the NDCs), the UNFCCC and its different bodies that allow the non-state actors and civil society from diverse communities and “Major Groups” to make input during the Negotiations so that the climate policies can be inclusive of them. Throughout this article, we will explore the UN entity responsible for these negotiations and bodies and how young people may advocate for our today and tomorrow, eventually changing the narrative of the climate policies. So, let us explore how together we are striving and making change happen and how others can join.
UNFCCC and The Climate Negotiations
Now you might be thinking about which UN entity is responsible for change and the global response to this threat? The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the UN entity focused on Climate Change and the Global response. The Convention was initially adopted by the Parties (Countries) in 1992, and now 197 Parties are members of this Convention.
The Convention has given many agreements focused on saving our today and our tomorrow. In 2015 the Paris Agreement made history in the world of the multilateral climate change process by serving as a legally binding agreement that brought all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. The Agreement was decided to be adopted by the Parties at the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) and was adopted by 197 Parties. The Paris Agreement is focused on keeping the global average temperature rise this century as close as possible to 1.5 ºC above the pre-industrial level. The goal is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century. More information can be found in the IPCC 1.5°C report.
The Kyoto Protocol is another example of Agreements under UNFCCC’s umbrella. It recognizes the crucial position of the developed countries as they are primarily responsible for the current high greenhouse gas emissions levels in the atmosphere. The Protocol was adopted on 11 December 1997, there are 192 Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, and it only binds developed countries and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities.”
All of these Agreements are not the end but the beginning. The UNFCCC is responsible for the Intergovernmental Climate Change Negotiations arrangements, but it is not limited to that as these Agreements are the body without a soul if there is no implementation. The UNFCCC secretariat assists in analyzing and reviewing climate change information reported by Parties and implementing the Kyoto mechanisms by providing technical expertise to achieve this. It also promotes the implementation of the Paris Agreement by maintaining the registry for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) established under the Paris Agreement. The secretariat also co-organizes Regional Climate Weeks to ensure the implementation of the Agreement at the regional level.
In order to further advance the implementation of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement, UNFCCC has a Body structure to support this. The UNFCCC has divided the Bodies into five types: The Governing, Process Management, Subsidiary, Constituted and Concluded Bodies. As I analyze the space, the governance structure of the UNFCCC allows the non-state stakeholders to contribute as observers in the negotiations, coordination meetings, and dialogues to impact decision-making. However, the Parties still possess more influence during the major negotiations; hence, the progress on implementation of the Agreement has been slow. During the sessions, the Observer community I closely worked with pointed out that they are not happy with the sequencing in which the interventions are given. The sequencing supports the Parties to take their interventions first and then comes the Observers. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, sometimes the Observers never get to intervene at all. This year I got an opportunity to participate in a panel with the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) 2021 chair, where I brought this problem to her attention and requested that Observers intervene with proper sequencing instead of putting them at the very end. I specifically highlighted how the young people are not happy with the sequencing as they do not get to bring their input to the table during the negotiations. Luckily, in the next session of the SBI, the Observers got to intervene before the Parties, and, during some other SBI sessions, the Observers were allowed to intervene in the middle. I am very grateful to the SBI chair Marianne Karlsen and her co-chair to amplify the voice of the youth into actual action. This is also something we look forward to seeing more in the next SBs and COPs.
Youth at The UNFCCC Processes
The UNFCCC defines Constituency as follows: “In the intergovernmental negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) admitted as observers by the Conference of Parties (COP) have formed themselves into a loose group with diverse but broadly clustered interests or perspectives.” Focused on different Major groups, the nine constituencies of the UNFCCC are YOUNGO (Youth NGOs), Business and industry NGOs (BINGO), Environmental NGOs (ENGO), Farmers, Indigenous peoples organizations (IPO), Local government and municipal authorities (LGMA), Research and independent NGOs (RINGO), Trade union NGOs (TUNGO), Women and Gender. Now let us focus on the people I am writing this article about and for – the Youth.
YOUNGO – (Youth NGOs)
YOUNGO (Youth NGOs) is known as the official Children and Youth Constituency of the UNFCCC. However, it did not happen magically all by itself. The young people kept on raising their voices constantly until they made the loudest echo that could not be reversed. After the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the young people organized themselves as the International Youth Climate Movement. The youth and children got recognized by the (UNFCCC) as their Constituency during the Conference of Parties at Copenhagen in 2009. Then, finally, in 2011 YOUNGO became the official Children and Youth Constituency of the UNFCCC.
We are a network of 10,000 plus individuals and 1000 plus Youth entities, organizations and NGOs from all around the globe. According to YOUNGO’s membership distribution it has 30.8% members from Asia, 14.9% members from Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.0% members from North America, 27.5% members from Africa, and 13.3% members from Europe. There are many other regions represented at YOUNGO. The current statistics are only an estimate of the data we have managed to gather so far. Our space is filled with perspective and passion for working together for the climate and better today and tomorrow. YOUNGO has a flat hierarchical structure, engaging in different working groups, both thematic to the UNFCCC Negotiation topics (for example, Action for Climate Empowerment, Local and Indigenous Communities) and cross-cutting (for example, Human Rights and Science), to allow Youth voices from all communities to come together and have their say at the Climate negotiation and to make them more inclusive for ALL young people. We have members from all around the globe, and if you are an individual below the age of 35 years, you can join YOUNGO at any point and become a part of this dynamic, diverse community of young people.
YOUNGO’s mission is Awareness, Knowledge, and Capacity Building Collaboration. We raise awareness, share knowledge, and build capacity and skills through our platform and working groups. We also create an evidence base for best practices by assessing existing knowledge and generating new, identifying emerging issues, practical use, and dissemination strategies. This is done through webinars, workshops, and events such as the Conference of Youth (COY). YOUNGO has been organizing the Conference of Youth for 11 years now. The Global COY is the official gathering of the YOUNGO members, and it happens every year before the Conference of Parties (COP). As a result of the Global COY, the young delegates draft a policy document, which feeds into the COP. YOUNGO also organizes the Local COY (LCOY). This year for the first time, we will be organizing the Virtual COY (vCOY) to make the Climate Negotiations more inclusive for all communities of young people, the vulnerable, marginalized, and indigenous groups of young people. Outputs from both LCOY and vCOY are fed into the GCOY and consequently into the climate negotiations. The Global COY policy document is specifically focused on the youth voices.
Cooperation and Network Policy
We are a network and facilitate collaboration and cooperation activities for young people to enhance their network and trigger projects in accordance with our vision. This is, for instance, done through meetings with Parties and other constituencies or briefings with the UNFCCC and other UN entities.
During the COP and Subsidiary bodies (SB) Intersessionals, the YOUNGO members can join the ad hoc teams to draft interventions together. These interventions are delivered during the open sessions at the SBs or COPs on behalf of the whole youth constituency; hence it is an official opportunity that YOUNGO has to gather all voices and make them heard at the negotiating tables. I can share my experience with this ad hoc team during the SB sessions of 2021. We gathered at one place and discussed what we want our intervention to be focusing on the most, and every voice counted equally while drafting the interventions. We would divide ourselves into teams to write about different points and then meet again in the broader group to align the structure of our intervention. I worked with ad hoc teams for interventions during the Opening and Closing Plenary sessions of the intersessionals and contributed to the Intergovernmental meeting.
We also meet different Parties outside the negotiations. These meetings are called the “YOUNGO Bilaterals,” where we as young observers have dialogues with the country negotiators and ask them questions while highlighting what we would want to see from their side during the negotiations. This year I was a part of the EU (European Union), Mexico Bilaterals.
Lobby and Advocacy
We advocate for pragmatic, responsible, just, and ambitious climate policies. Through our submissions and interventions, among other activities, we facilitate the collective participation of young people in official and formal avenues of policy design, implementation, monitoring, follow-up, and review at all levels. Furthermore, we facilitate children and youth participation and engagement in local, national, and international climate processes.
We mobilize youth and provide a platform that encourages them to lead, join, showcase, and share innovative and practical actions. Furthermore, we support and stand in solidarity with youth actions around the world. YOUNGO envisions a climate-positive and just society living in harmony with nature and the planet and an empowered youth generation driving meaningful, impactful, and positive change locally, nationally, and internationally. Most importantly, we strive towards the UN, where youth sits at the decision-making tables and is taken seriously, just as mentioned in Agenda 21.
YOUNGO actively engages at the COP and other Climate Negotiations, but the support of the young people from other constituencies of the UNFCCC is also valued. Hence, young people from different backgrounds are being involved in various constituencies and supporting the community of young people worldwide. As someone who has been in the space for several years now, I encourage all the young people reading this to engage at different UNFCCC constituencies. So that we can amplify the youth voices at the negotiation and decision-making table and advocate against youth-washing, which is also an unfortunate reality of these spaces. Youth washing or Youth tokenism can be of many types and tends to happen in many other spaces. Still, within the climate space, we try to address that one need not highlight the youth voices only from a specific community that a decision-maker prefers. There is no cherry-picking when it comes to amplifying the youth action for the climate. And when you have young people at a consultation or such spaces, listen to them for the sake of understanding and transforming the current system into a more inclusive one for them and the future generations. They do not want to be invited to an event with high-level politicians and decision-makers and talk shallowly the way they do and go home without any impact being achieved. Their voices must be heard, and the environmental policies and decisions should be inclusive of their inputs.
It is time for the world to witness the transition from Youth Engagement (engaging young people only at consultations and not giving them enough power to lead for their present and the future generations) to Meaningful Youth Leadership (breaking the hierarchy by giving young people space at the decision making tables where they are the part of the climate and environmental decisions that will affect their present and future majorly). Together, we can do it. If you want, you are encouraged to join us in our call for the rightful leadership of the youth of today and tomorrow.
Meaningful Partnerships – Road to Meaningful Youth Leadership
YOUNGO, in its essence, is about empowering young people. We do it by amplifying the young people’s voices, which also includes building a better bridge between the youth and the UN agencies and rightfully using the opportunities to highlight the youth with our partnership with other organizations and entities.
As mentioned previously, YOUNGO has 1,000+ Organizations and entities registered as members. It is also helpful to note that YOUNGO has robust connections with the UN agencies with which it works on different initiatives and policies as a collective voice. One of the very recent examples of such collaborations can be the “COP25 Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth, and Climate Action.” YOUNGO is a proud custodian of this Declaration together with UNICEF and Children’s Environmental Right Initiative (CERI). This Declaration was made jointly after the input from the YOUNGO members and CERI. The input is centered on the young people and children and their right to a healthy environment. It is a concrete example of children and youth’s demands for climate justice, and 14 countries have signed this declaration. Nevertheless, 14 countries are not enough. The Human Rights working group of YOUNGO launched an open letter during the UN Climate Change Dialogues 2020. This open letter is aimed at the young people to urge their Governments to sign this declaration, adapt to the elements of this declaration and turn it into action-oriented towards meaningful implantation. For the youth, children, and future generations.
Apart from the UN agencies, YOUNGO also works closely with different organizations and entities. March for Science is yet another fantastic partner of YOUNGO with which the constituency is working on a crucial campaign called “SC1.5°NCE NOT SILENCE CAMPAIGN,” which raises awareness and mobilizes supporters to call on their respective governments to embrace the IPCC 1.5°C report and achieve climate goals. This is the essential step against the several oil and gas producing nations which block the IPCC 1.5°C report from UN climate negotiations. These are only two out of innumerable examples of how YOUNGO is building meaningful partnerships, giving the young people a platform to lead and hear.
The goal and vision of YOUNGO have faced many hurdles as, unfortunately, myriad initiatives are being youth-washed and tokenized by small and big entities. The YOUNGO community advocates against this while also raising the crucial points on free labor from the young volunteers, for example, using their capacities, skills, knowledge, and most of all their time without any recognition or monetary support.
My Journey at YOUNGO
I joined YOUNGO in 2017 as a 20-years-old. During these four years, not only have I given to YOUNGO, but YOUNGO has given a lot to me as well. It made me a better advocate; it taught me that it is my fundamental right as a human being to raise my voice for my future and call out everyone who is destroying it because it is not only about the present and future, but also about the future of the coming generations. I started as a member and was astonished to see how everyone gave their time out of their professional and personal life to YOUNGO just for the noble cause of Climate Action. That inspired me to get more involved. The company of the experienced YOUNGO members had been very informative. I learned not only to advocate better but also a lot of different technical and interpersonal skills. Some of them also include dealing with cultural and linguistic differences and how to respect diversity, other voices, and perspectives.
When the global pandemic started and my college was closed due to lockdown, I focused on YOUNGO more, enhancing my engagement significantly. I began my journey as the Contact Point of the Human Rights Working Group. I stayed committed and dedicated most of my time to YOUNGO’s vision. Today I am the Contact Point of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Working Group and Global Liaison for United Nations Climate Change virtual Conference of Youth (vCOY). Some of my other engagement at YOUNGO includes:
- An active member of YOUNGO Global Coordination Team (GCT).
- Part of several YOUNGO partnerships with different UN agencies and Further Organizations, including close engagement within the coordination and advocacy team of the COP25 intergovernmental declaration for Children, Youth and Climate Action, and representatives from UNICEF and the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI).
- One of the co-lead on behalf of YOUNGO as an official Youth Constituency within the UN system for ECOSOC Youth Forum.
- Member of the Women and Gender and Human Rights working group.
- Former Contact point of the Human Rights working group.
YOUNGO organizes many different types of workshops, events, youth forums, and conferences. These are excellent educational opportunities because you get to learn so much, and it helps a lot in personal and professional growth. For example, within the vCOY team, we have different people working on various topics according to their area of interest (like social media and graphics, resources and content, etc). When we meet we share personal stories from our countries, we get to know about different delicious food from all around the world and about different cultures. I recently got an opportunity to work with a young individual from Poland, her name is Kaisa, and she has been a part of the vCOY team since the beginning of 2021. From Kasia, I learned about Polish culture and the culture of different places she visits in Europe. It was eye-opening for me to hear how a young person from a developing European country feels; her reflection on life in the Global North is unique. Sharing these personal stories has also made us such a great team. We do not think anymore that we are from two very different parts of the world or cultures. I think this is an excellent example of how YOUNGO brings young people from other parts of the world and connects them forever. Young people learn to coexist, tolerance and acceptance by working in an environment where we follow the rules to respect diversity and work together for our sustainability today and tomorrow.
My roles exemplify how open YOUNGO is to give everyone a chance, even if they had joined newly. The community does not see which region of the world you belong to or your educational background, skin color, gender, and language. This community of young people from all around the world welcomes you with open arms. This means a lot to me as someone from the Global South who covers their head as a part of her identity. My case of being welcomed, accepted, and encouraged here is an excellent example for all young female individuals who wear a hijab or have colored skin. It is common to face harassment, bullying, or being looked down upon because of covering the head or having colored skin. I have had similar experiences at other spaces where I got objectified because of it or have been considered less capable of leading because of my hijab.
Nonetheless, as I joined YOUNGO, I felt a sense of belonging; the community never let me feel left out because of my hijab or colored skin; instead, I ended up making friends from many different communities. YOUNGO is a safe place for anyone and everyone to express themselves and their identity. It is a home for all genders, religions, and cultures. I learned tolerance for all from this community.
The most beautiful thing about the YOUNGO community is that it is one big family with space for new members and an important place for everyone. Everyone can join this community by filling out a simple form – So, what are you waiting for? I hope to see you at YOUNGO!
 United Nations Division for Sustainable Development (1992), United Nations Conference on Environment & Development Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992, “AGENDA 21”, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf
 「World Economic Forum」, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/how-to-redesign-food-systems-2021/
 「Global Report on Food Crises, 5th edition」, https://www.fsinplatform.org/sites/default/files/resources/files/GRFC%202021%20050521%20med.pdf
 「Global Report on Food Crises, 5th edition」, https://www.fsinplatform.org/sites/default/files/resources/files/GRFC%202021%20050521%20med.pdf
 「What is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change?」, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-convention/what-is-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change
 「The Paris Agreement」, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
 「What are governing, process management, subsidiary, constituted and concluded Bodies?」, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/bodies/the-big-picture/what-are-governing-process-management-subsidiary-constituted-and-concluded-bodies
 「COP25 Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action」, https://www.childrenvironment.org/declaration-children-youth-climate-action
 YOUNGO’s Human Rights Working Group Open letter (2020), Call for Governments: Commit to child and youth-centered climate policy and action, https://www.childrenvironment.org/sign-declaration