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Paving the Way Forward with Youth-led Climate Litigation by Ahmed Gad

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Paving the Way Forward with Youth-led Climate Litigation by Ahmed Gad

In the recent UN75 Youth Plenary, the United Nations Secretary-General had interesting advice for young people: after mentioning their role at the frontline of the climate emergency, he advised that if they are to be better involved and have an increased role in decision-making, they have to fight for it, for power is not given, it is taken. Youth, in the last couple of years, have raised their voices, and great efforts were made in advocating and bringing awareness on the issue of climate change through various approaches. However, youth still remain sidelined and not fully engaged in the decision-making fora on climate. What can the next step for youth to transition all the knowledge and advocacy into concrete action and efficient climate policies? Climate litigation could certainly help pave the way.

During this pandemic, amidst the ripple effects on all sectors of society, one small silver lining has been the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It was reported that during the initial weeks of lockdown in March and April, a reduction of emissions was observed. [1] Air quality improved slightly but would not be sustainable unless some action is taken. As the world still grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, among the various remote conferences, studies, and statements, the notion of “building back better” has been mentioned frequently, along with the need for a green recovery including the climate lens, something that can generate some excitement and hope among the youth.

As mentioned, the youth have been leading a global climate movement since 2018, starting with a teenager from Sweden by the name of Greta Thunberg. What began with a teenager protesting in front of her country’s parliament building led to “Fridays for Future”, a series of school strikes extending all over the world. This in turn led to many initiatives being created in order to highlight and amplify the voices of the youth, be it through online platforms, such as Voices of Youth,[2], or even the Youth Climate Summit in 2019 and the UN75 Virtual Youth Plenary, among other examples. This is a step forward, acknowledging youth’s importance in climate issues.

However, with these steps taken on the international stage, this engagement will need to be maintained and even scaled up, as for the time being it remains insufficient to spur and implement climate action. After all, consultations with the youth is not binding, their inputs are only taken into account. Not enough measures are being undertaken to tackle the climate emergency: no climate action is being undertaken,[3] with little progress on the Paris Agreement goals.[4] Thus, all the youth’s efforts in these past few years are yet to be converted into results: their advocacy remains unparalleled with climate action.

The youth remain sidelined in such crucial climate policy-making procedures. So, if power is to be taken, like the United Nations Secretary-General stated, and this climate emergency is clearly a concern that affects the youth, in which under the Conventions of the Child,[5] they have a say in this topic. Thus, perhaps another approach is needed to translate their concerns and opinions into climate action.

The answer may lie in climate litigation.

The number of cases surrounding climate litigation has certainly increased since the Paris Agreement. There are many examples of youth going from the streets to the courts to obtain climate justice,[6] a majority of them claiming climate inaction as a violation of human rights, with most notably the complaint filed by 16 youth activists to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.[7] And with the COVID-19 pandemic in the mix now, stronger cases can be built by also linking the current pandemic, health emergency to climate change.[8] Climate litigation can help apply pressure on governments and policymakers, hold them accountable and speed up climate regulations, and ensuring the commitments made in the Paris Agreement are met, thus advancing climate action, all while increasing public awareness. Many impacts can derive from taking climate into the courts.[9] This showcases a serious initiative by the youth and has them build a stronger narrative, but most importantly, during the decision-making procedures, they will push for their concerns and opinions on climate to be incorporated in the development of climate policies and procure them with greater inclusion in governance systems.

Youth need to further participate in the decision-making fora, be it regarding climate issues or others. Consultation is not enough, they need to be included in the heart of the design of the policies that affect them, as well as in its implementation. Litigation would push for more dialogue with policymakers and government officials, something that has been lacking for quite some time. In the 74th General Assembly session, only 36 countries had youth delegates in their delegation.[10] We know youth are key stakeholders, not only in climate but peace, security, and development issues. The last three United Nations Security Council resolutions on youth, peace, and security (UNSCR 2250, 2419, and 2535) demonstrated that fact. Hence, greater dialogue needs to be established, not just every annual summit or conference. Mechanisms and platforms of regular communication between officials and youth are needed, for youth also offer great advantages, such as passion, creativity, and innovation, as recently seen with the switch of climate activism from the streets to the virtual space due to the pandemic.[11] Fortunately, steps have been taken, with the establishment of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change,[12] or the various youth advisory boards established in many countries during the last years, such as in Belarus,[13] Ecuador,[14] or Somalia to name a few.[15] These efforts will need to be multiplied.

In addition, a shift in rationale will need to happen: if youth are tomorrow’s leaders, then they need to start training today, not be held them off until their time comes. The belief that they lack the knowledge and experience to currently participate in governance systems only strengthens the need to include them at the negotiations table, to include them in the delegations, help, educate and prepare them for when they will inherit greater responsibilities. The quicker the integration of youth in the negotiations, in the decision-making processes, the quicker we can tackle this climate emergency.


About the Author

Ahmed Gad is a graduate from York University, majoring in Political Science. He recently worked in the Peace and Sustainable Development program at the International Peace Institute, having focused on the localization of the 2030 Agenda, as well as on the intersectionality between youth, peace, and climate action.


[1] Corinne Le Quéré, Robert B. Jackson, Jones, Matthew W. Jones et al, “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement.” Nature Climate Change 10, 2020. ; World Meteorological Organization,“COVID-19 and Climate Action”, April 2020

[2] See Voices of Youth.

[3] Climate Action Tracker, “Governments still showing little sign of acting on climate crisis”, December 12, 2019.

[4] Climate Action Tracker, “Global update: Pandemic recovery with just a hint of green”, September 23, 2020.

[5] OHCHR, “Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

[6] UNESCO, “Climate change: A new subject for the law”, September 20, 2019.

[7] UN News, “Countries violate rights over climate change, argue youth activists in landmark UN complaint”, September 24, 2019.

[8] Joana Setzer and Rebecca Byrnes, “Global trends in climate change litigation: 2020 snapshot”, London: Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, July 2020.

[9] Ibid

[10] United Nations, “UN Youth Delegates at 74th GA session” .

[11] Priyanka Jaisinghani, “3 ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed youth activism”, World Economic Forum, October 12, 2020.

[12] United Nations, “The Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change”.

[13] Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, “UN Youth Advisory Panel established in Belarus”.

[14] Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, “UN Country Team in Ecuador to establish Youth Advisory Panel”.

[15] United Nations, “Key Role of Somali Youth in Peace Efforts Highlighted in Meeting with Head of UN Peacebuilding in Somalia”, September 16, 2019.

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Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth supports all young people and their diversity in exercising their right to freedom of expression. Reach Not Preach platform serves as a safe space for all young people to share their take on the topic of climate change. The views expressed in the Reach Not Preach platform are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth and the United Nations.

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