Hundreds of young people from around the world gathered this week for an online summit that explored some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the planet, including climate change and pollution.
The event, the Virtual Youth Forum, took place on the eve of World Environment Day, an annual celebration of the Earth. Organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Department of Global Communications, the forum featured several young people who are helping to make the world a cleaner, greener place.
They included Nisreem Elsaim, a Sudanese climate activist, and Nzambi Matee, a Kenyan entrepreneur whose company turns discarded plastic into paving stones. Matee, a 2020 United Nations Young Champion of the Earth, said she was encouraged to see the active role young people were taking in the “battle” to reverse decades of environmental decline.
“We have the tools, like social media. We have the tools in the technology space, in the activism space, in the policymaking space,” said Matee. “I choose to say we will win this battle.”
The theme of the event was Reimagine, Recreate and Restore, a nod to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a 10-year push to revive the natural world that officially launched 5 June.
The drive comes amid what experts warn is a looming global environmental crisis. A recent report from UNEP found that unchecked development has pushed ecosystems around the world, including forests, coral reefs, and wetlands, to the breaking point. Human activity has already altered more than 75 per cent of the Earth’s surface and environmental degradation affects 3.2 billion people.
Young people are increasingly being seen as cogs in the effort to undo that damage.
“To me, there is no doubt that we are witnessing our wilderness being pushed to the brink,” said celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls, who addressed the forum. “But time and time again the work that young people are doing gives us all hope that we can reverse the devastating loss of ecosystems.”
Melissa Fleming, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, praised the “dedication, leadership and passion” of young people in tackling environmental challenges. “More and more, we as the United Nations are partnering with young leaders like yourselves to tackle these environmental challenges. That’s because we know you are the instigators, the ones already actively participating and bringing change to your peers and your communities,” she said.
Mike Varshavski, an American medical doctor and YouTube star told the forum there was an undeniable link between human health and the environment. He pointed specifically to a dramatic loss in coral reefs over the last several decades.
“When we see the corals being destroyed in our oceans, we are actually losing the ability to create medicine because the coral reefs are nature’s medicine cabinets,” he said. A biodiverse, well-balanced environment “leads to a healthy physical, mental and social state,” he added.
Forum participants called on people to take practical actions in their daily lives, such as making sustainable consumer choices, sorting and recycling plastic waste, riding a bike to work, and switching to more environmentally friendly diets.
In closing the event, Jadayah Spencer, Executive Director of the International Youth Leadership Institute, said: “Young people need to make use of the power they have now.”
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Decade is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. This global call to action launched on 5 June, World Environment Day. It will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to scale up restoration with the goal of reviving millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Explore UNEP’s work on preserving ecosystems, including forests, coastlines, peatlands and coral reefs. Find out more on the UN Decade of Restoration here.