Our young people are still waiting for the great leap forward

When it comes to climate action, the term “ambition” has become meaningless. We must either do what is necessary to protect the rights of all, or we fail.

Sean McCabe29/07/2021

Ambition is in the eye of the beholder

At a recent roundtable meeting with EU decision makers on the EU’s new Fit for 55 climate package, one climate policy veteran emphasised his belief that the package was beyond reproach. “All the young people saying this is not ambitious enough, this is just blah blah,” he said, “they don’t see we have, in such a short time, increased our ambition from 10% reductions, to 20% and now to 55%”.

It struck me as strange that he was able to acknowledge the insufficiency of previous commitments, at the time sold as ambitious, and yet in the same breath repeated the old mistake all over again.

While the Fit for 55 package represents progress, and progress can always be framed as ambition, the truth is that in key areas the package is still found wanting. The renewable energy and energy efficiency commitments are below what is necessary to halt our inexorable march to the critical 1.5oC warming threshold. Similarly, a push to include emissions from buildings and transport in an Emissions Trading Scheme, while continuing to protect heavy industry from paying the cost of their emissions, essentially shifts the cost of pollution from polluting companies to the people. People are already bearing the cost. A recent study for the European Commission found that the EU taxpayer has been saddled with costs of approximately €55 billion per year for failing to achieve existing environmental targets. 

The Phoenix Consultation

Rather than speaking of ambition, which is nebulous at best and deceptive at worst, it would be more courageous to measure ourselves against what is necessary to halt warming at 1.5oC as well as what is required to protect the rights of all people as we act. Framed in this light, what one man hears as blah blah is in fact our young people’s rallying cry for solidarity and survival.

Earlier this month, TASC supported the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative and other partners in bringing together 200 activists from across Mexico, Canada and the United States for the Phoenix Consultation, of which 150 were children and young people. This was a four-day intergenerational summit focused on the realisation of children's environmental rights in North America.

The Phoenix Consultation is the third in a series of regional consultations taking place with children and youth across the world, following Consultations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as East Asia and Pacific. Later this year the sub-Saharan African consultation will take place and next year the consultation will come to Europe.

The four-day summit marked the conclusion of an extensive grassroots consultation with children and young people across the three countries which ran for six months. The fifty young people from each country who participated in the summit represented the spectrum of contexts and circumstances in North America. Their discussions were informed by numerous experts from relevant fields including: the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd; Samoan Supreme Court Judge and Committee on the Rights of the Child member Clarence Nelson; Director of Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice, Zoe Craig Sparrow; Elisa Morgera of the One Ocean Hub; critical race and ethnic studies expert Dr. Sirry Alang; and White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council member Dr. Kyle Whyte.

Over the course of the four days, the young people laid out a transformative, eco-centric vision for the future, grounded in intersectionality and decolonisation while embracing rights-based approaches for people and nature. This vision is captured in the youth-led Phoenix Declaration on the fulfilment of the environmental rights of children and young people in North America, produced at the end of the four-day summit and informed by the conversations that took place between participants.

Ultimately, these regional consultations will create a new Global Charter on Children’s Rights and the Environment – a visionary document, created by children and young people around the world, setting out new and dedicated child rights standards. These standards will hopefully inform new international instruments such as the General Comment on Children’s Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change, which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently committed to developing.

Holding ourselves to a higher standard

The Phoenix Consultation in North America coincided with the passing of the new Climate Bill back here in Ireland. The bill certainly represents progress after years of inaction on the climate crisis from decision makers in the Oireachtas, and again, the word ambition was frequently employed by those promoting this legislative achievement.

Yet the commitment on emission reductions isn’t sufficient to keep us on track for the 1.5oC temperature goal, and so isn’t enough to assuage fears of continued catastrophic climate impacts, such as climate induced food insecurity in vulnerable communities, like those faced by First Nation peoples in North America or communities in small Pacific Island states. It certainly wouldn’t be sufficient to change the mind of the numerous young people who, during the Phoenix Consultation, said they will not have children for fear of the world those children will inherit.

Haggling over what constitutes ambition seems even more misguided as the impacts of the climate crisis intensify. The heatwave that claimed over 700 lives in Canada had left a deep impression on the youth participants in the Phoenix Consultation, as did the wildfires on the west coast which are raging through vast expanses of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges. The summer flooding across Europe simply brings closer to home the impacts which communities in poorer and more vulnerable countries have been telling us about for decades. It’s clear that we need to hold ourselves to a higher collective standard for action.

One way to do this would be to commit to, and then uphold, the right to a healthy environment. It looks increasingly likely that a core group of countries at the Human Rights Council in Geneva will table a resolution at the September session, which, if voted through by Council members, will result in the right to a healthy environment being formally recognised. A detailed discussion on the relevance and importance of universal recognition of the right can be found in the 2018 report by John Knox and David Boyd. 

Rights, rather than ambition, provide a genuine yardstick.

Standing on the right side of history

One of the participants at the Fit-for-55 round table was familiar to me. I recognised him from a talk he gave in Dublin over a decade ago. At it, he spoke triumphantly about Europe’s successful decoupling of its economy from its carbon emissions and the potential of the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). I recall that any querying of the level of ambition and particularly the dimensions of global justice during the question and answers session received a short shift – perceived as naïve or idealistic. With 10 years of hindsight, it is possible that it was the belief in the neoclassical ETS, rather than justice, that was idealistic.

No doubt there will be those that will respond to the Phoenix Declaration with similar accusations of idealism or naivety. Yet when stacked up against the toll that environmental and social crises are inflicting on our global community, the demands of the children and young people seem not only realistic, but necessary if we are to ensure a safe and just world for future generations. As youth activist Samia Shell put it in her remarks during the opening plenary of the Phoenix Consultation, "Wisdom does not come with age but rather the ability to relate to the collective".

Recent history shows us that the irreversible nature of the climate crisis inevitably unmasks insufficient climate commitments. Our young people recognise this. They also know that a fair and inclusive response to the crisis is required to avoid exasperating existing, and creating new, crises of poverty and inequality that, ultimately, will undermine our chances of survival. Youth climate activists around the world are standing on the right side of history, they’re just waiting for the rest of us to join them.


Sean McCabe

Sean McCabe.PNG

Sean holds an B.Sc in Applied Physics from Dublin City University and an M.Sc. in Development Practice awarded by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Prior to joining TASC, Sean worked as a Policy Officer with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice for five years. During this time he engaged with the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also led the Foundation’s work on intergenerational equity. Sean spent five years working in the private sector, as a catastrophe risk analyst with Renaissance Reinsurance. He also spent 2 years working in a hospice in Kolkata, India, and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Sierra Leone building the agencies capacity in Geographic Information Systems.



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