UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer was a Speaker at the AIESEC YouthSpeak Forum “Transforming Youth, Transforming Sri Lanka” on September 11, 2019. The Resident Coordinator spoke to university undergraduates and recent graduates on making positive social change in the areas of climate action and responsible consumption and production.
Excerpts of the speech are below:
Here in Sri Lanka I am convinced of the power of young people to make a change in their world.
Why do I say this?
Because as I travel all over Sri Lanka, I have met so many caring, smart and motivated young people who are making an impact on their communities.
One such outstanding young advocate from Bentota was appointed the UN Secretary General’s Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake. I believe all of you in this room have the power to shape the world you want to live in.
Today young people have immense potential to be impactful agents of change – because of the opportunities that technology provides. You are interconnected with your peers around the world, like no generation before you. Therefore, the opportunity to exchange ideas, organize yourselves and mobilize for important causes is immense.
I urge all of you to take advantage of this moment and utilize technology to make a difference in the world today, to shape the future you want.
History has shown us that social movements thrive when young people take the lead because they are impressive catalysts for change. If you look at the civil rights movement in the United States, it is young people who called for the desegregation of schools, voter rights, civil rights legislation and challenged racism.
This started a movement of “good trouble” – fearless non-violent agitation designed to provoke, challenge, and move progress forward.
In this region, millions of young people are engaged in the fight for every child’s right to go to school, and to do so in safety. In India, the Global March Against Child Labour has mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people, who have walked millions of miles demanding an end to child labour and the right to go to school.
In 2012, the world heard the story of Malala Yousafzai, who spoke out publicly on behalf of girls and their right to learn. Her words were ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world’ and she inspired the world.
Now, it is time for all of you to act and address the defining issue of our time – climate change.
Children and young people represent 30 percent of the world’s population. They represent the largest group of people currently affected by climate change and young people are also more vulnerable than adults to its harmful effects.
It is your generation and future generations that will have to deal with the future impacts of climate change, and you are the generation with the most to lose. You must lead the charge on this front and take bold steps to secure your future.
Last year Greta Thunberg from Sweden was just 15 years old when she began to protest inaction on climate change. Within months she mobilised support and urged immediate action from business leaders at the World Economic Forum. This year she sailed across the Atlantic to draw attention to the cause.
We as the UN are proving the platform for activists such as Greta, to make their voices heard.
For example, we are hosting the Youth Climate Summit in New York on the 21st of September which brings together young activists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers who are committed to combating climate change. Over 7000 young people will attend. The results of the Youth Climate Summit will be presented at the Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit two days later, on 23rd September.
The Secretary General’s Summit will call on leaders from government, business and civil society to boost efforts to tackle climate change. They are expected to agree on bold actions and concrete plans for carbon neutrality by 2050. Solutions in the areas of energy transition, climate finance, and carbon pricing, industry transition and nature-based solutions will be discussed.
These efforts cannot succeed unless young leaders from all over the world take their rightful place and drive positive climate solutions.
Turning to Sri Lanka, I am pleased to recognize that the country has taken great strides in allowing private and domestic sector investments in renewable energy and tapping, the last vestiges of hydro power available to the country.
However, much more needs to be done.
About 19 million people in Sri Lanka live in locations that will become moderate or severe climate hotspots by 2050. The country has faced continuous cycles of floods and drought, making it one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.
The future is dependent on taking action on these issues now, because living standards in Sri Lanka can drop by 5 to 7 per cent because of climate-related vulnerabilities.
As young Sri Lankans, you need to take your place in the conversation on climate change, it is absolutely vital. You must advocate for an economy that results in improved human well-being and social equity and at the same time significantly reduced environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
This is what we call the green economy and it is the future! The Green Economy fosters prosperity, creates decent work, and protects the planet for our generation and the generations to come.
Here in Sri Lanka the UN is working with the Government to explore the potential of renewable energy, looking at ways that energy and other resources are used more efficiently in production and consumption and supporting the modernization of the environmental management systems. At the same time, we are working with Sri Lankans to protect the biodiversity that this country has been blessed with. An important part of our work and the work for Sri Lankans is fostering climate resilient livelihoods, to ensure that future opportunities are safeguarded.
In tackling climate change, it is important to keep in mind that investments in development and climate resilience go hand in hand. More governments, cities and businesses than ever understand that climate solutions strengthen our economies and protect our environment at the same time.
As we call on governments and businesses to make the large-scale changes needed to mitigate the risks of climate change, we must also be aware of the impact our everyday actions have on our environment.
An ongoing conversation is the use of single use plastics.
We all know that plastic pollution in the ocean is detrimental to marine wildlife, to the planet and to humans. Our everyday consumption and the demand we create by using plastics, contributes to this harm and degradation.
Again, I know that Sri Lankans are making strides towards more responsible production and consumption, for example in the apparel industry. Last month when I attended Colombo Fashion Week, I was glad to see the number of ethically produced and sustainable brands that were being showcased. As one of Sri Lanka’s highest export revenue earners, it was encouraging to see that the garment industry was doing its part.
Sustainable production and consumption encompass social issues, such as improvements in working conditions and remuneration for workers, as well as environmental ones, including the reduction of waste, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate action and responsible production and consumption are only two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in which young people can make a difference. The Goals are our blueprint for fair and sustainable pathway to development that leaves no one behind.
Their powerful message is that no matter where you are born, no matter how marginalized your community may be – the world is determined to carry everyone along on our journey to a better and more equitable future.
But, the 2030 Agenda is much more than a framework; it is a concrete plan for policies that can improve the lives of hundreds of millions of women, girls, men and boys around the world.
However, the world is not keeping pace. We face serious challenges and evolving risks. This is why we need young people like yourselves to take action, to join together and mobilise yourselves and mobilize society, to make a difference.
I will end by echoing the words of the Youth Envoy Jayathma, ‘Act now, speak up, and stand up for your rights and your ideas. Demand to have a seat at the table, don’t wait for an invitation’.
I know that all of you can go out into the world and shape the future you want to see. Be champions for climate action, for responsible economies and for building an inclusive future – a future that will leave no one behind.