Indian Government Opens Climate Debate to Youth

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YouthIndia's government has set a new international standard for engaging youth on climate policy.

In June, the Ministry of Environment and Forests invited the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) to comment on the government's climate change regulations. Inputs from the youth movement were then raised in India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, in an unprecedented gesture to the nation's youth.

"The Government is aware of the recommendations and duly keeps these in mind when finalizing documents [and] actions," the Ministry stated in a press release.

Youth - defined as people under the age of 35 - are a significant political stakeholder in India, representing nearly 70 percent of the population. The youth stake in the climate debate is arguably higher still, with the effects of rising temperatures and other climatic disruptions likely to be felt well into the future.

The IYCN was founded in March 2008 and is a rapidly growing coalition of individuals and organizations across India that are united around solutions-oriented action on climate change.

Kartikeya Singh, co-founder and former executive director of IYCN, praised the government's efforts to connect with young voters.

"It is a great leap forward to see the government acting on the promises it made when it signed the Agenda 21 declaration at the Rio Summit," Singh said, referring to a 1992 commitment from more than 180 nations that includes a call to formally engage youth in climate policymaking.

Among other resolutions, the declaration states that governments must "establish a process to promote dialogue between the youth community and Government at all levels and...provide them with the opportunity to present their perspectives on government decisions."

So far, India is one of the few nations to have taken steps toward this commitment. Last December, two young people were invited to join the official Indian delegation to the United Nations climate discussions in Poznań, Poland.

But the latest invitation seems to mark an increasing level of governmental engagement on climate issues following this spring's national election. During the election, all three major parties mentioned the need for climate action in their campaign platforms.

The recent inputs from IYCN included a statement of support for the success of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in India, a means of channelling international funding toward climate-friendly projects.

"We hope that CDM will expand its influence to become a stable financing mechanism for the scale-up of activities under the National Action Plan's eight missions in years to come," said Leela Raina, policy coordinator for the IYCN.

The statement also expressed strong opposition to the inclusion of nuclear energy as part of India's CDM program.

In addition, IYCN issued a strong expression of support for India's adoption of the contentious "2-degrees" commitment at the recent G8 +5 Summit in Italy, calling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision an "honorable commitment" and applauding the government for its leadership. The 2-degrees commitment recognizes that, based on the latest science, the increase in average global temperature above pre-industrial levels should not exceed two degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

IYCN also expressed concern about the recently announced tax holiday for producers of new oil and gas products in India and about the Environment Ministry's plans for fast-tracking approvals for coal-fired power plants on degraded forestlands. The coalition further emphasized the need for a monitoring mechanism to ensure that India's budget reflects its own sustainable development goals, such as those outlined in the National Climate Action Plan.

"We hope this engagement [between youth and the government] will continue to strengthen in the coming months as the youth movement grows," said Raina.

Singh, however, believes the Indian government must go even further. "The true test will be to see the government live out the rest of the promises it made in signing the [Agenda 21] declaration by including youth in the decision-making meetings themselves."

Leaders from the world's international climate youth movements are hoping their governments will follow India's lead.

Kyle Gracey, chair of the U.S. youth network SustainUS, called the Indian government's willingness to consider youth input a "small but positive move" and said his government needs to be far more receptive to its own youth campaigners.  

"The U.S. has heard our words but they have not listened, especially Congress," Gracey said. "Their weak actions will not achieve the opportunities present in our call. The voice of youth is the blueprint for the future. Acknowledging that future is not enough; governments must help create it."

Anna Keenan, a campaigner with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition who has attended the U.N. climate change negotiations for the past two years, said that her government consults with young voters only as an "afterthought."

"Youth are asked what they think on crucial issues that affect their future-like climate change-but their recommendations and ideas are filed away in a government back room instead of being raised in parliament and acted upon, as they have been in India," Keenan said.

Other developing nations are calling for change as well. "Climate change poses great risks to Africa," said Alexis Nikolakopulos, a member of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC). "We call for the support of all governments, including India's, to help support and encourage such noble youth movements and organizations like AYICC."

Despite representing 48 percent of the global population, youth have long been bystanders to the international climate change debate, and today's youth believe this must change.

"Youth are the future. By designing today's policies in cooperation with today's leading youth organizations, governments can ensure that their policies have long-term support over coming decades," Australia's Keenan said.

Casper ter Kuile, co-director of the U.K. Youth Climate Coalition, agreed that, "Youth have the largest stake in the outcome of these negotiations and we need to ensure our voices will be heard. In 2050, I'll be 63. By that time, our politicians will be six-feet-under."

Could those who have the largest stake in the outcome of the negotiations be slowly arriving to the table?

"Perhaps to the building," ter Kuile said. "But we are hopeful!"

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute fellow based in New Delhi and a member of the Indian Youth Climate Network.