The two Kenyan teenagers stood awkwardly outside the UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi. To a casual observer they might have looked out of place among the suit-wearing, lanyard-bearing delegates at the world’s most influential environmental summit but in fact, they had come to deliver their own keynote addresses.
On Wednesday, Charlotte Wanja and Shlok Sachdev, both 17, took to the stage to remind those gathered in the Kenyan capital for the Fourth UN Environment Assembly that the future they are discussing belongs to them. The high school students were invited to attend after winning a Kenya-wide speechwriting competition on the theme “Our Earth in 2050”.
Their messages were stark, their warnings unfiltered, but ultimately their faith in humanity, and particularly in the world’s young people, gave reason to hope.
Charlotte, a student at the Alliance Girls High School in Kikuyu outside Nairobi, chose to focus on pollution.
“It is a topic that makes my heart throb, goosebumps come out of nowhere and sometimes I get really emotional, but I have every right to feel this way. The future of our earth involves me. And my future children. And my children’s children,” she said, noting that if nothing changes, pollution and global warming could become unstoppable.
But an alternative was also possible, she said.
“We have faith, we have truth, we have hopes, and we have visions. And we have hard work. These are the things that will dig us out of the situation we have gotten ourselves into. Doing little things in a great way, that’s how we’re going to do it. Plant that one tree, pick up that one plastic bottle, the little things matter.”
Shlok, a student at Premier Academy in Nairobi, echoed this positivity.
“I believe in a future where renewable energy is the new normal, where we cut down on fossil fuels and go electric, a future where we really learn to reduce, reuse and recycle.”
Heads of state, environmental ministers, business leaders, tech experts, academics, scientists, and civil society activists are in Nairobi this week to take part in the Environment Assembly. The theme this year is innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production.
Speaking before delivering his speech, Shlok, who hopes to study economics and engineering, said young people could offer answers, particularly on innovation.
“We’re more with it in the sense that every new thing that comes out we like to know about it as quickly as we can. This sort of curiosity is what will drive us,” he said.
“The youth are 100 per cent of our future. We are the ones who are supposed to make these changes. We need to start putting renewable energy as a priority and start to innovate and make it more efficient, so we can run our whole world on renewable energy.”
Charlotte, who would like to study environmental engineering, was moved to speak after seeing rubbish piling up along her route to school.
“It is so dirty and it makes me angry that people have the heart to do such a thing. We young people are the future and I want to make an impact on the environment. I want to be one of the people who will make tomorrow better.”
The teenagers join a growing global movement of young people demanding swifter, more effective action on climate change. Inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who staged a sit-in in front of parliament in Stockholm, thousands of children around the world have walked out of classes to protest the perceived failure of politicians to tackle environmental challenges.
For Shlok, protest is good but action is better.
“We can’t look at everyone and say, ‘this person didn’t do this’. We need to actually make a difference because at the end of the day, we are the ones who can harness the future of technology. We know more about it,” he said.
The young Kenyans were particularly upbeat about the role of African youth and took inspiration from the success of the Flipflopi, the first ever traditional dhow made entirely from recycled plastic, which sailed along the Indian Ocean coast at the beginning of the year to raise awareness about the wasteful use of plastic and which now has pride of place outside the UN Environment headquarters in a special display organized for this week’s summit.
The Flipflopi has become an iconic image of Kenyan innovation and environmental activism.
“Just by looking at it, it makes me happy,” said Charlotte. “I think people don’t believe in themselves in Africa because we are lower in economic terms. We have to make people believe that everyone is able to make an impact and bring about change.”
“I thought that was a brilliant idea, recycling things to use as art,” Shlok said. “Schools do art all the time. Instead of taking that fresh piece of paper and just drawing on it, why not see what you can pick up from the floor and what you can make from it?” he said, adding that Africans could take the lead on environmental issues in the future.
“Africa is the next global hotspot. We have the potential, and we have the education and the willpower and the determination to bring about changes. What I see is that Africa is going to leave the world behind and everybody will notice that Africa has moved way ahead of even the Western countries,” he said.
The teenagers ended their speeches during the launch of the Sixth edition of the Global Environment Outlook on Wednesday with fervent pleas for action.
“We have the ability, we are capable of building an amazing future. It is time that everyone realizes that the future lies in our hands. To live in a garbage wasteland or a golden garden. Choose,” Charlotte said.
“We need to focus on our earth before it’s too late because this earth gives us everything,” Shlok said. “Let us give Mother Nature our full support.”
About the UN Environment Assembly
The United Nations Environment Assembly brings together heads of state, environment ministers, chief executive officers of multinational companies, non-governmental organizations, environmental activists, and more, to discuss and make global commitments to environmental protection. The Fourth UN Environment Assembly gathers in Nairobi from 11 to 15 March and focuses on innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production, aiming to inspire nations, companies and individuals to #SolveDifferent and take a critical look at how they produce and consume.
About the Kenyan speechwriting competition
The competition was launched in January and participants had to submit a video on the theme "Our Earth in 2050". More than 300 entries were submitted from across Kenya. The jury included Acting Executive Director of UN Environment Joyce Msuya, Head of the Scientific Assessment Branch Edoardo Zandri, Head of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) team Pierre Boileau and Director of the Professional Speechwriters Association David Murray.