Young people and climate action: where are we now, where do we want to be and how will we get there?

Today, in the face of the global climate emergency which is closely linked to the crisis of global action, it is clear that the acceleration of action at all levels is the need of the hour. With several global crises underway, ICLEI – Local Government for Sustainability (ICLEI) is taking action by supporting more than 2,500 local and regional governments in 125 countries around the world to accelerate the localization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to foster a resilient and net zero nature. sustainable, circular, equitable and inclusive development.

One thing is certain: leaving the Earth in a disastrous state, now or in the future, is not an option. A strong legacy is needed for today’s children and future generations. Currently, more than 1.3 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 live on this planet, nearly 85% of whom live in countries of the South.

By 2030, 60% of this urban population will be under 18 years old.

Where are we now?

Our young people, who represent the next generation of voters, workers or leaders, are demonstrating their determination, their anger at lagging leadership and their potential to engage in climate action. Young people are being heard in the climate debate at all levels, as they mobilize millions of peers, create global movements that claim the priority of climate action on political agendas and call on governments at all levels to recognize and respond to the global climate emergency.

Young people continue to champion the call to meet the Paris Agreement goals of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees), compared to pre-industrial levels.

A crucial first step was to recognize the role of young people in the fight against climate change. In 2008, the UNFCCC Secretariat focused on strengthening the effective participation of young people in climate change policy decision-making processes. Since then, we have made enormous progress in this direction.

One of the most notable advances made at COP26 is the mention of multi-level action under the UNFCCC – Glasgow Climate Pact. The Pact recognizes “the important role of indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society, including youth and children, in the fight and response to climate change, and underlines the urgent need for multi-level action and cooperative”, and “urges parties and stakeholders to ensure meaningful participation and representation of young people in multilateral, national and local decision-making processes, including within the framework of the Convention and the Paris Agreement.

Pictured: Young people at COP27 with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Photo credit: UNclimatechange.

Furthermore, the Glasgow Work Program on Action for Climate Empowerment reaffirms “the essential role of young people as agents of change, calling for further strengthening youth participation in climate change processes and unlocking the potential for Action for Climate Empowerment”.

There is a need and an opportunity for frank dialogue between subnational governments and young people, something that is understood and underway. ICLEI strongly believes in this approach and shares below some examples of how we have put it into practice:

  • ICLEI started to establish a strong relationship with YOUNGO, the youth constituency of
    UNFCCC for children and young people, made up of many organizations, groups,
    delegations and people working in areas related to climate change. This is also related
    the role that ICLEI plays as the focal point of the LGMA constituency at the UNFCCC.
  • By sharing good and best practices and creating spaces for discussion, ICLEI has been
    helped inspire and spark this essential conversation across cities, towns and
    regions of its network, as well as with institutions and initiatives around the world. It was
    demonstrated through:
    • Create many dialogue opportunities, including a firm presence in Daring
      Cities 2021.
    • LGMA Constituency Focal Point Participation in ICLEI World Congress 2021-2022
      in Malmö and, more recently, at ICLEI’s Daring Cities Global Virtual Forum 2022.
  • ICLEI is an official partner of the Youth4Climate initiative, launched by the Italian Ministry
    ecological transition (IMET) and the UNDP in May 2022.
  • ICLEI members have identified and implemented new ways to establish an ambitious climate and
    biodiversity targets, with well-defined strategies to achieve them that include public opinion
    and the support of local youth. Recife (Brazil), Bonn (Germany), Olympia (USA), Tirana
    (Albania), Lusaka (Zambia), Malmö (Sweden), Envigado (Colombia), Mount Barker
    (Australia), Turku (Finland), Bandung (Indonesia) and Udaipur (India) are just a few
    famous examples of such leadership and commitment.

However, we still have a long way to go and there is still a lot to do. A major message shared by 12 university students attending the ICLEI World Congress 2021 – 2022 in Malmö highlights that youth are still not meaningfully included in most climate debates.

They are invited (often very late in the process) to play primarily an advisory role, rather than a decision-making role. Moreover, their calls to raise climate ambitions and accelerate climate action are largely ignored. The risk that the “youth wash” will make their presence more ceremonial instead of giving them the opportunity to contribute substantially to the content remains high.

Where do we want to go?

Young people have the need, energy, creativity and motivation to drive change and improve their quality of life in the cities and communities where they live, study and work. We must not forget that they are agents of change, researchers, entrepreneurs, innovators and residents.

The Malmö Commitment highlights the importance of a just transition towards a sustainable local economy, stressing the need to create decent jobs for young people and women:

“These jobs should support new local economies that are productive and non-extractive, help restore and improve the environment, manage climate risks, or otherwise support safe, healthy, and sustainable communities and lifestyles.”

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ICLEI envisions integrating the voice of young people into its own activities through the five ICLEI pathways, taking into account local specificities, while supporting the role of the next generation in the co-design of local implementation projects.

Young people should have a say in crucial strategies such as local climate action plans, through appropriate governance structures and processes. Formal processes for young people that feed into decision-making at the local level (municipal councils), including through research, need to be put in place.

ICLEI intends to scale up support to local and regional governments to unlock and embrace the constructive and creative potential of young people, meaningfully including their representatives as active participants in local climate action. One way to achieve this goal is for ICLEI to create a toolkit for young people on how to reach local government officials and for local governments on how best to engage and involve young people.

How can we get there?

ICLEI recognizes the valuable and creative contribution young people can make to climate action and their potential to push for more ambitious climate commitments at the local level. ICLEI aims to strengthen youth participation through their proactive involvement in local government activities through three pillars:

  • (i) Advocacy
  • (ii) Knowledge sharing and capacity development
  • (iii) Governance


Advocacy is an instrument to call and push for more ambitious climate commitments, regulation, policy and accelerated joint action. In line with our mission to foster multi-level governance, ICLEI will continue to collaborate with representative youth organizations, such as YOUNGO, Youth7 (the official youth engagement group of the G7), as well as other organizations and regional youth networks in important international arenas such as the COPs. to affirm and recognize the importance of each in charting the course towards a sustainable future.

  • ICLEI has taken important steps to advocate for greater collaboration with young people. Building on the outcomes of the Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB56), ICLEI intends to actively involve young people in the Stocktake4ClimateEmergency together with the Local Youth Conference (L-COY).

Knowledge sharing and capacity development

This pillar focuses on activities related to knowledge exchange between formal and informal education actors, including youth groups, schools and universities. ICLEI will strengthen its partnerships with relevant stakeholders to contribute to and amplify learning opportunities for young people.

  • ICLEI considers it very important to encourage the creation of new jobs and training opportunities for young people, especially in local government offices and bodies. This will allow younger people not only to learn from experienced local staff, but also to actively contribute with new creative ideas and original perspectives in designing innovative solutions.


This pillar focuses on empowering young people in decision-making processes through youth councils that support policy makers in the development and implementation of local climate action plans and ensure the representation of different groups of young people, such as the most vulnerable and the most marginalized.

  • ICLEI aims to support practitioners and decision makers in integrating next generations in the design and implementation of local sustainability, resilience and climate policies. We urgently need to move on to implementing concrete actions – and young people need to be actively involved in this process.

Finally, in line with ICLEI’s five pathways to driving change, we recognize the need for coordinated collaboration of youth engagement in areas related to sustainable development in the face of all environmental, social and cultural crises. This includes (but is not limited to) biodiversity and nature conservation, water management, circular economy, social innovation and food production systems.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of In the featured photo: Young people at COP27. Photo credit: UN Climate Change.

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