27 Feb 2018 Story Education & environment

Erik Solheim: A call for youth action

By Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

It’s not always easy to be optimistic about the future of our planet.

The oceans are rising, and some species are dying off. From Somalia to Nigeria, millions of people are reeling from vicious droughts. Only an hour’s flight from our offices here in Nairobi, the world’s last male northern white rhino lives under 24-hour protection from poachers in northern Kenya. With stakes as high as this, it can all seem pretty overwhelming.

What keeps me from despairing, though, is you, the younger generation. You’re not discouraged by past failures, nor are you beholden to the old ways of doing things.

Among all the heads of states, ministers, and accomplished environmentalists at the UN Environment Assembly this past December, you were the ones who really captivated us with your energy and fresh ideas. You give us hope.

But allow me please – as an old(er) fogey – a few words of guidance. Because as impressive as your contributions are, we desperately need even more. Social media can be a powerful tool, but we mustn’t lose ourselves in our screens. We need to renew our focus on the real world, and the many environmental challenges that lie on our doorsteps.

I implore you put down your phones, your laptops, and help us re-examine how we might make our lifestyles more sustainable. Though more connected to one another than ever before, I fear we’ve become horribly disconnected from the very Earth we’re fighting for.

Above all, I call for you – young campaigners, scientists, engineers and more – to translate that fierce online passion into concrete action on the ground. If we can truly harness your talents to the environment’s advantage, I have little doubt we can right the planet’s wrongs.

Some of you might wonder if you can really make a difference out there, beyond the internet petitions and shareable videos. After all, it’s a big world with formidable-looking environmental challenges. But let me assure you that everyone of us can be part of the change we so desperately need.

Whether it’s just adapting your daily activities to use less water and energy or cutting out waste, every little bit helps. This Valentine’s Day, UN Environment appealed for a “break-up with plastics”. By taking personal responsibility and turning to more environmentally friendly practices, we can begin the slow process of transforming our societies.

And for those of you keen or perhaps able to do more, we’re here to help. In fact, we’re particularly interested to hear from you. Last year, we unveiled the first Young Champions of the Earth, and as we move to tackle a range of challenges – from soil degradation to fast decreasing bee populations, we’re looking for the next crop of brilliant movers, thinkers and shakers in 2018.

If you have an idea or project that addresses pressing environmental concerns, we’re all ears. It was my honour a few months ago to recognize Omer Badokhon, a Yemeni engineer, who even in the middle of his country’s conflict dreamt up a brilliant device that swiftly decomposes organic waste, thereby producing biogas.

The more innovative and daring, the better. Another of last year’s winners, Mariama Mamane from Burkina Faso, developed a programme that uses one problem to help solve another. By taking invasive water hyacinth plants, which clog many of Africa’s waterways, she found a cheap and sustainable means of producing energy and organic fertiliser.

This is a call for youth action because we need you. And we need you now. Don’t sit back, thinking this isn’t your problem. The environment is crying out for your assistance. We’re here to help make that happen.

The 2018 cycle of Young Champions of the Earth launches on 27 February. To learn more, and find out how to apply, visit the Young Champions website.