Center Hosts UN Effort to Engage Youth in Sustainable Development

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Center Hosts UN Effort to Engage Youth in Sustainable Development

July 09, 2015

The questions of sustainability and sustainable development are intergenerational issues that must be taken up and addressed by youth if any meaningful progress is to be made. This is the message expressed by youth organization leaders and the public at a workshop hosted by the Columbia Global Centers | East Asia on July 6 organized by the Sustainable Development Solutions Youth Network to explore myriad ways of meaningful engagement.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is an initiative launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in August 2012 to bring together members of academia, civil society and the private sector for an integrated approach to sustainable development. Its youth division aims to engage youth globally in the post-2015 agenda through the prioritization of the Sustainable Development Goals. This workshop is the first youth event in China.

The workshop began with a presentation by Lydia and Samuel McMullen of the Natural Resources Defense Council on air pollution and Chinese climate policy. In light of China’s growing influence in the international community and its rapid development, an intensive understanding of China’s role in both domestic and international climate policy negotiations is crucial to the future of sustainable development. While China has taken important steps to address environmental issues, the McMullens suggested that lack of knowledge and commitment by local officials to implement legislation enacted by the central government impede significant and effective progress.

Youth organization leaders, Xu Wang of Youthink, Mi Yan of Youth Lead, and Zhi Su of China Youth Climate Action Network, have also encountered a lack of knowledge and experience regarding environmental problems at the university and high school levels. Whereas awareness of more visibly apparent issues, such as air pollution, exists among the public, other equally urgent issues such as water and soil pollution receive less attention in mainstream discourse on the environment. In addition to the basic but fundamental task of raising awareness of these various issues, the youth leaders stressed the undeniable importance of engaging young people in environmentalism beyond their academic careers and into their professional lives.

To that end, these youth leaders have organized exciting and creative ways to encourage environmental activism and engagement. These include implementing campus-based projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions, collaborating with the United Nations and the Chinese government to promote youth action, and organizing international youth summits to facilitate transnational connections for future cooperation. In fact, the creation of networking opportunities through which environmentally conscious students and youth can come together and nurture a community was crucial to the mission of each organization. Beyond superficial engagement, the youth leaders sought to instill within their members a life-long consciousness of environmental issues and a commitment to solving these increasingly urgent problems.

The workshop concluded on an optimistic note in part due to the enthusiasm of the youth leaders and the effectiveness of their work. While there was a general sense of urgency around the state of sustainable development and environmentalism, outright hopelessness seemed to be mitigated by the potential for youth action, as well as the identification of promising strategies for long-term sustainable development.

The Center’s work on sustainability has included close collaboration and support to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network led by Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who also serves as director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. This effort is led locally by our Advisory Board member Professor Xue Lan at Tsinghua University, who is co-chair of the Network's China Leadership Council.

Over the year of 2013, the Center has deepened its support to the Network, engaging both Columbia faculty and local speakers in an effort to host discussions of sustainable development issues, one of China’s most pressing problems.

(Contributed by Max Lee and Jing Liong; Edited by Eyra Xiong)