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UNU Blog: SDG 13: ​Combating Climate Change — an Old Hat?

By Philip Vaughter, UNU-IAS, ESD

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.

In 2009, when Christina Ora spoke at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parities (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 take a long time. 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.

Tomorrow is just another day

The concept of common but differentiated responsibilities has been an underlying principle within the UNFCCC since its inception — one that recognizes differing capacities and responsibilities among nation states in responding to climate change.

In addition to the concept of common but differentiated responsibility, the idea of intergenerational equity is often brought up in the context of climate change. Usually the conclusion is that the generation in power will give the next the tools to respond to climate change. This basically leads to the idea of “Clean Development Mechanism” between parents and their offspring — a mechanism where one party gives another specific tools or technology to reduce the latter’s emissions, without necessarily reducing the former’s.  While the UNFCCC was founded on the ideal that countries must take responsibility for their past emissions, the same ethos does not seem to exist for generational cohorts.

But there is no time like the present

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 it is smart or even sustainable to do so?

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 over 80 are the fastest growing age cohort in many parts of the globe. 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 over 80), but steadily increase yearly into one’s mid-60s, and stay above the per capita GHG emissions of those under 30 into one’s late 70s.

While younger generations may have numbers, their influence is debatable. Globally, 13% of youth (aged 15–29) are unemployed — a rate higher than their parents at their age and three times higher than the unemployment rate of older generations around the world at present. Youth unemployment rates are even higher in the US and the European Union (16% and 24% respectively). Moreover, in developing countries, 60% of youth that have work  struggle in jobs that are not stable. Their peers in post-industrialized nations and regions fair little better.

Given the precarious nature of employment and benefits for young people, those who are employed are working longer hours for less. This means they have less time and fewer resources to invest in political activism than previous generations did at the same age and do currently. However, trends towards urbanization, 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. In contrast, those over the age of 50 are carrying high carbon lifestyles into an even older age.

Engage the old and the young

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 will have to find ways to engage older cohorts who may be reluctant to change behaviours or learn new technologies, and not just target younger ones as tabula rasas.

True, this may require some sacrifice. But previous and current generations in power have proven adept at mobilizing mass resources and making numerous sacrifices. A recent article in The Economist bemoaned the cost of an estimated 4% of global GDP to implement the SDGs, including tackling climate change. In 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 a changing climate and the disruptions that come with it. And with life expectancies increasing in every region of the globe, there is a growing possibility that older generations will live to see this.

With this in mind, perhaps resolution and willpower are necessary in Paris, not only for the sake of the descendants of the generation in power, but for their own sake as well.